Every time I come back to Norway for the summer I suddenly see my country with a different set of eyes, and things that used to be familiar and normal have a tendency to seem a little odd to begin with. That’s okay. I’ve lived in the US for three years, and the fact that I’ve become more “Americanized” with time should come as no surprise. But there’s one thing that has started to bother me more and more each time.
With the fear of sounding like some kind of a traitor, I’ll try to pick my words carefully, but this one Norwegian “characteristic” has become so annoying to me that I, at one point, told myself I could no longer see myself living here.
The concept is hardly unique for Norway, but from my experience it is far more prominent here than in the US.
It’s the “Law of Jante.”
If you’re not familiar with this crippling concept—good for you—but I’ll try to explain it anyway.
This may sound harsh to some, but for the purposes of demonstrating my point, I’ll say that to Norwegians the Law of Jante is what the Pledge of Allegiance is to Americans; in the sense that it’s so deeply ingrained into the culture that people don’t even think of it as a tad bit strange anymore. It’s noticeable as soon as you enter the domestic part of any Norwegian airport, and it reads as follows:
I hate it!
I never noticed how bad it was until I moved away, and I’m sure our society doesn’t even realize the grip Jante has on it.
I don’t think people necessarily mean any harm by obeying to this law, I’m just saddened to—once again—discover the tremendous impact it has on people’s lives and behavior.
The effects of Jante can be very subtle, and it can be very obvious.
Just because the general philosophy says that you shouldn’t stick your head out too far, or raise your voice too high, people rarely have the courage to confront you if they think you’ve put on too much of a show. But subtle or not, there will be consequences for not adapting to the law; backbiting, rumors, lost friendships and a constant feeling of swimming against the current, to mention a few.
This is the recipe for insecurities, inferiority complexes, stagnation and broken dreams, and it makes me feel trapped; trapped inside a room that was built for people who’s been taught to walk with their heads down.
“Don’t stand up too tall — you might get noticed. Don’t speak up — someone might hear you. And whatever you do, don’t try to be good. And actually, now that you’re at it, you may try to hide away those talents of yours, too. Just in case.”
It’s claustrophobic beyond measures.
Sometimes I want to use a sledgehammer to tear down the low ceiling in all these Norwegian rooms that makes it impossible to stand with your back straight.
I’m not saying that cockiness and arrogance is any better, but confidence, dreams and joy cannot thrive in these conditions. We need encouragement, support, enthusiasm, respect and a feeling of self-worth before we can even begin to talk about growth, progress and — happiness.
Imagine if we paid more attention to the reasons why the people around us will succeed, why they’re important, what makes them beautiful, and what they have to offer.
Jante, you’re not going to win. I’m not afraid of using that sledgehammer when I have to, and consider this my first swing.
I encourage every single one of you to internalize these words.
Live, teach and breathe them!
Your voice does matter.