Jantelagen Means “Humility and Restraint”

Girl running

Jantelagen discourages standing out from the crowd. Photo by: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se


In my previous post, I wrote about “lagom.” You can read about that here. This time, I am going to explain Jantelagen.

Modern Day Vikings: A Practical Guide to Interacting with the Swedes” by Christina Johansson Robinowitz and Lisa Werner Carr (2001) explains Jantelagen as “a Scandinavian concept with the underlying theme of societally enforced humility and self-restraint. Expressed as a series of commandments, Jantelagen attempts to “keep people in their place” by discouraging vanity of any kind. One consequence of Jantelagen is the “Royal Swedish Envy”—there is a tendency to envy and thus criticize anyone who appears to be “too successful.”

Wikipedia describes The Law of Jante (Jantelagen) as “a pattern of group behaviour towards individuals within Scandinavian communities, which negatively portrays and criticizes individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate. Generally used colloquially as a sociological term to negatively describe an attitude towards individuality and success common in Scandinavia, the term refers to a mentality which de-emphasizes individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while discouraging those who stand out as achievers.”

When it comes to business, some people think Jantelagen is a threat to Sweden’s global competitiveness because it might discourage innovation and achievement. Others think it is no longer an issue because new generations of Swedes are discarding Jante.

I see the effects of Jantelagen on the culture in Sweden. Even if it truly is disappearing with every new generation, I think it is still firmly woven into the cultural consciousness. People want to wear the same colors (it’s those black jackets I’ve blogged about so many times), not show off wealth or lavish purchases, or be perceived as too ambitious in their jobs. One of the positive things about this way of thinking is that people think more about the group and less about themselves.

  • cynic

    I would say that Jantelagen (and Swedes) don’t react to people being “too successfull” the reaction is to the apperance, if you just keep up your life and apperance as before or with modest improvments you are allowed to be as sucesfull as you can. Prime example is Ingvar Kamprad, it is hard to be more sucessfull than him but since he avoid all signs of outward luxury he us still greatly respected.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jacob-Ericsson/598648853 Jacob Ericsson

    Jantelagen has a lot to do with what anthropologists call the “Evil Eye”-belief. A belief that is shared in many cultures that if you flaunt your successes, bad things happen to you. Keep in mind that Sweden was urbanised very late in history. Just a hundred or so years ago, we were almost all farmers. Cultural behaviours shift slowly. For example, cultures that have lived in large cities for a long time tend to talk louder and use their hands more vigorously in conversation(to compete for attention with all the goings on in a big city). Swedes are quiet for that very reason, we simply moved to cities a not so long time ago.

    • cynic

      Yes, many of the oddities in Swedish cultures are a result of the fact that we where urraised late and fast. So when Sweden went from having a urban pupolation of less than 2% to over 90% in about two generatons all those farmer’s boys and girls brought their belifesystem with them and there was just to few townspeople to have any reall impact on it. Unlike in more central parts of Europe where the towndwellers where many enough to at replace or at least greatly impact the blifesystems of the people moving into the towns and cities.
      What is true for Sweden above is also true for Norway and Finland and to a slightly lesser degree for Denmark (that had a slightly bigger urabn population than it Scandinavian neighbours before the great urbanization)

  • Monica-USA

    I understand the concept, but in order for Sweden to continue to innovative and be on the cutting edge they need to adjust that line of thinking.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jacob-Ericsson/598648853 Jacob Ericsson

      This is a cultural behaviour that plays in the social arena, not in the intellectual one. It doesn’t really stem innovation as much as it stems gloating and rubbing it in people’s noses. Sweden has after all had plenty of innovators when the Jantelag was a lot more prominent than it is today. Considering income gaps are rising in Sweden like most of the western world with blatantly absurd salaries to CEOs, I wouldn’t mind seeing jantelagen coming back in style, a little bit at least.

      • Monica-USA

        I do understand the need and desire for this behavior. I am from a society that promotes you to be better, faster and to stand out against your peers but at the same time to be there and help someone that is in need of your help. It is a fine line between the two behaviors. I find this whole “Jantelagen” very interesting.

    • cynic

      Hm, facts seem not to agree with you on that.
      Competivness (Sweden:4th US:7th)

      Innovative Countries (Sweden:2nd US:10th)

      Thats the first lists I got goggle-seraching on:
      most competitive countries
      most innovative countires

      • Monica-USA

        Well then I stand corrected, carry on. :o )

  • http://blogs.sweden.se/work/ Kristin Lund

    It’s an interesting conversation. Here’s a new article with some business insight about
    the Difference Between Sweden and the U.S… http://sacc-usa.org/currents/business/innovation-entrepreneurship-commercialization-kamilla-kohn-radbergs-insight-into-the-difference-between-sweden-and-the-u-s/

  • Vaestgoete

    Jantelagen is the unyielding force that forces us to conform to mediocrity.

  • scandidream

    Such a good posting and a good thread of discussions. Success and showing off are two very different things, and it is not that hard to be very successful and be humble about it in the same time. What I cold not find out, though, is if according to jantelagen you will be socially punished for success, or just for showing off. I think that such a combination is far more reasonable than a childish boasting. I also liked very much the article about the differences between the American and Swedish culture as influences on business. I believe that the slower pace of production in Sweden as stated by the author being due to more time spent in planning and perfecting a product before launching (that is, assuring quality before going to the market) is a better way to go. I know for a fact that a good number of Americans believe in that as well, but maybe the pace, even with taking that into consideration, is still a little bit different. IMHO.

    • http://blogs.sweden.se/work/ Kristin Lund

      Interesting thoughts. Thanks for commenting. :)

  • S Terzian-Feliz

    I think Jantelagen is also taking over in the US.

    • http://blogs.sweden.se/work/ Kristin Lund

      Intersting! So the Swedes are trying to drop the thing and the Americans are picking it up?

      • cynic

        Well all the global comunication do indeed even things up a bit :)