‘Janteloven’: the Norwegian norm that the UK helped me unlearn

In Norway, we have this law. Well, not really a law; it’s more of a societal norm. It’s called Janteloven or, in English, The Law of Jante. There are many ways to interpret it, but it generally refers to how you should put society ahead of your individual self, don’t boast about individual accomplishments, and don’t be jealous of others.

We weren’t taught about The Law of Jante in school, and I honestly don’t exactly know how I know it. I’ve just always known about it, though I’m not sure I fully understand it. It’s unspoken but somehow, still so familiar to me. It states:

“You’re not to think you are anything special. You’re not to think you are as good as we are. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are. You’re not to think you know more than we do. You’re not to think you are more important than we are. You’re not to think you are good at anything. You’re not to think anyone cares about you. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.”

This is definitely hard to explain to foreigners. The law itself sounds quite harsh and, despite its benefits for society as a whole, it is very damaging to the individual. Today, it is something most Norwegians are in the process of unlearning. I can only speak for myself, but I struggle with accepting praise and being confident. Not boasting, being humble and not wanting to stand out is deep-rooted in me. I sometimes forget it’s part of my identity. That is, until I moved to England.

Now, it seems I am reminded of it every day; I am different. Having to repeat my name multiple times and being met with: “Oh where are you from?” “Norway? That’s so cool!” or, when people learn I speak/understand multiple languages: “Wow! For real?! You must be so smart!” My reply has always been along the lines of “It’s not that cool” and “I’m not that smart.”

Back home, I could easily abide by The Law of Jante, but here I am unique. It’s not that I wasn’t unique before, because every person is. It’s just, here, it became so painfully obvious I wasn’t like everybody else. I started to dislike everything that made me stand out; my height, my hair, my eyes and especially my accent. I didn’t think any of these things were ugly per se: I only wanted to fit in. I didn’t want the compliments and interest in me and my foreignness to risk me becoming less than humble.

I am not any better than the next person. Compliments and interest don’t change the value of a person. I think the underlying message of Janteloven is: everything in moderation. Thinking too much about yourself prevents you from helping others. On the other hand, to help anyone else you have to help yourself. There needs to be a certain sense of individualism for people to be confident and do their best. This individualism seems more prevalent in England.

So, in a weird way, coming here has forced me to focus on myself and put my individual self in the spotlight. It’s given me the confidence I needed to say: it’s okay to be proud of my accomplishments, it’s okay to believe in my abilities and it’s okay to like myself just the way I am.

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Synne Solbrekken

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May 2022
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