Understanding The Jante Law

This week, I heard how some people new to Sweden felt that it was strange that the boss was having a coffee with everyone else in the break room. In general, the person felt that the organizational structure here was a very flat hierarchy. I wanted to share some thoughts I have around this and something called the Jante Law, that is something you can use to understand the phenomena. Even if you are not currently working, understanding this will help you frame your message to someone in a more efficient way.

For some months ago, I was going to a lecture about culture. In the lecture, the professors talked about how culture manifest itself in:

  • beliefs and values
  • stories and myths
  • heroes
  • rituals

Stockholm skyline

The Jante Law

In Sweden and the other Nordic countries, there is something called the Jante Law. In my opinion, the Jante Law explains HOW people behave but not how people should behave. Here are the ten commands:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at us.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

Pretty depressing, right?

Some people might say that the Jante Law is dead. I beg to differ. I think the Jante Law is still very much alive even though it takes different forms in various subcultures.A book with a pair of glasses on

 

An Example of The Jante Law

Cover of entreprenör magazine with Stefan Persson on the cover and the words "det har väl gått ganska hyggligt". In English: "it has gone pretty well".

The magazine with Stefan Persson where the caption is “det har väl gått ganska hyggligt” (“I guess it has turned out somewhat okay” in English).

One funny example I saw for some months ago with the former CEO of H&M, Stefan Persson. The company H&M is one of the great business successes in Sweden during the last century. what I saw was an interview where there was a picture of Stefan Persson with the headline: “I guess it has turned out somewhat okay”. H&M has an annual revenue of 223 Billion kr and 161 000 employees all around the world. By many business factors, it is considered a great success.

I think this narrative is very common in Sweden and the Nordics. People are very much downplaying their capacities, skills, and accomplishments. I see this also when startups are pitching their business ideas. Many pitches I see are very informal and humble in their approaches.

Looking back at this example, we can see how the Jante Law is seen both in terms of the values that this person shows. The humbleness of saying “I guess it has turned out somewhat okay” when by standards of measurement things went great.

But we can also see heroes, stories, and myths in this example. This was the cover of a business magazine. So, I think it also says something about what heroes and stories the business landscape is presenting and consuming. Putting someone on the cover of a magazine is kind of like making that person a hero in some sense. At least for the readers.

So, what can you do?

My main motive for this post is to give you a brief understanding of how the Jante Law works in action and how it sometimes can be a part of the culture. I do think that it is still something that exists, but also something that has been diminishing. Especially in specific subcultures.

What you can take away from this is that most people that are leaders or decision makers are probably quite close to you. What surprise people a lot is how flat the hierarchy is here. I often advise people to connect to leaders in organizations and many people I talk to don’t understand that it will work to do that. They think they need permission or access.

That is kind of the good thing about Jante, that line of “you’re not to think you are anything special” can be interpreted as “I am not special”. But, even more importantly it can be interpreted as “no one is special” or even “we are all the same”.

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4 Responses to “Understanding The Jante Law

  • Nice one there. At least I have an understanding or the background info about the work culture. Tack so mycket

    • andreaswennberg
      3 years ago

      You are welcome! I am glad I could help you understand the background of the work culture. Varsågod! 🙂

  • The “we” in the Jante Law means your colleagues at work, people around you etc.?

    • bojanpovh
      2 years ago

      Yes, it refers to the whole society in any Nordic country.

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