What if I told you, that in Denmark we have a law above all laws and it is not even a written law. But still we are all living by the unseen and unwritten law. Would you believe me !?
“The law of Jante” is the name and it is a description of a pattern of group behaviour towards individuals within Nordic countries that negatively portrays and criticises individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate. It was originally written by Aksel Sandemose, who wrote this in a novel about a Danish town called “Jante”, which abides by these ten rather harsh law, which sounds like:
You are not to think you are anything special
You are not to think you are more important than us
You are not to think you are smarter than we are
You are not to think you know more than we do
And so on…
It is all expressive of variations on a single theme and usually referred to as a homogeneous unit and it can all be boiled down to one sentiment: You are not to think you are anyone special or that you are better than us.
And now as non-Dane you are probably thinking: “What !? Are you serious !?” And to that I have to say: “Yes, I am afraid I am”.
You won’t notice it right away as a foreigner in Denmark, but it will start to sneak up on you as you start working, talk to your new Danish friends or send your children to school. It shapes every aspect of life in Denmark from how we raise our children to how we interact with our coworkers to what we expect out of our governments.
The other way around is when you are the foreigner in a country, where people are not living by this law. Then you feel the different BIG TIME!
Let me give you some examples by giving you the most eye catching about living in Italy without the law of Jante.
You are smart
My children have learned the importance of studying, as they have felt the competition and differences between the children in their classes, because the teachers highlights the good students as an inspiration for the other children in the class as it is okay saying: “I am smart”. Marks are given from 1st grade, so you know where you can improve and you soon realize that the most important part of being in school, is to learn! It is not the “bad” student who puts a common denominator in Italy but the clever one.
An American woman describes below how it was raising her children in Denmark:
“The Jante law is part of all Danish education. There’s no elite education here, no advanced, or gifted and talented programs. If your child is better than the others at a certain subject, his job is to help the students who are not as good. In Danish school your child’s social life is considered what’s most important. Does she have friends? Can she get alone with the other children? Does he fit in? The idea is that if a child is socially comfortable in school, if he or she wants to go to school, the academic success will follow”.
So as you can read; talent is not a number one priority but getting along is!
You are special
This part is a little bit difficult for me to write, as I am Danish and have lived by those rules for years – BUT here in Italy you, your children, your husband gets compliments all the time. In the beginning it felt a little bit awkward.
For example; You go into a shop and the sales assistant comes towards you very quickly, stops and look at you and says: “You have very beautiful eyes” you are taken by surprise and do not know what to say and you start blushing as you are not used to get compliment from strangers (okay… maybe it is just a way of selling you something 🙂 ). Another example; You are in the gyms locker room where a women compliments your body. Or when people you meet for the first time are telling you, how beautiful your children are and so on. All this because it is okay to think and say: “You are something special”. It would be very uncommon in Denmark.
In Italy it is also okay to be unique and to be well dressed just going to the supermarket. Just think about a typically “nice looking Italian well-dressed man”. Would that work in Denmark !? I do not think so as many people would think: “Who does he think, he is”. But here in Italy people are trying their hardest to be unique and special. One of a kind. Different. Because: “It is okay to be special”. If you walk down the street in a small city in Denmark, I will bet you that 90% of the people you will see, will have the same hair cut, same type of clothes with the same colors. No one will try to stick out.
You are (and feel) good
In my opinion the law of Jante is ten ways of saying: envy! And when you have lived in a country where the law does not exist then you feel a kind of relief. A relief because you do not need to enter the shadow all the time but instead you can enter the spotlight (figuratively speaking) and feel good. It is difficult to describe in all details how you feel the difference in Italy – but it is like the word “to brag” do not exist in the Italian language because it is okay to say and do things, you would never do nor say in Danmark.
So thank you Italy for showing me that it is okay to be in the spotlight and feel good.