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The Downfall of Jantelagen – Social Media Posted by on Feb 18, 2010 in Culture

I managed to get myself a degree in Scandinavian Studies back in the US. When I explain to people here in Sweden what that entails I am always faced with questions. Why? Why would you study Swedish culture? We don’t have any culture.

This comment always strikes me. On a personal level, it is a shame considering my passion for the subject, on a cultural level though it makes sense. Jantelagen has entrenched itself as an integral part of Swedish culture. As Jennie pointed out, the law, in its written form, originated in a Norwegian work of fiction. It is abrupt, direct, and can sometimes be viewed as quite oppressive.

It is something that can be seen in all aspects of life. From the soft-spoken Swedish athletes to the soft-spoken international Swedish companies. Rather than embrace all that makes Sweden worth reading about, writing about, learning about. All that makes Sweden Swedish, Jantelagen emerges.

Not just at the individual level though, Jantelagen also surfaces at the group level. The country as a whole suffers from Jantelagen. Sweden has made an enormous contribution to the in technology, design, social responsibility, fashion, sports, medicine. The list goes on. But showing pride in those accomplishments, or showing pride in the Swedish culture, is akin to heresy. A fictional law has been institutionalized in a country of nine million people. That in and of itself is fascinating.

Despite that institutionalization, I see small cracks. Cracks that seem to grow every time a Swede signs up for Facebook or Twitter or posts a blog post about the new shoes they just bought at NK (shameless plug: if you haven’t already, you should probably join our Facebook Fan Page or follow us on Twitter). Social media is the anti-Jantelag.

Suddenly, Swedes everywhere have a platform to express their individuality. To express their latest conquest. Their latest degree. Their latest purchase. But to do so from a distance. There is a disconnect between posting a Facebook update about your MVG and the hundreds of friends who will read it. There is no disconnect between telling your friend about your MVG while sitting around at a fika. Social media is paving the way for a cultural shift. Instead of an unwritten law which tempers the ego of even your most successful Swede, social media strokes the ego of even the least successful Swede. Jantelagen will bear the brunt of that shift.

By the way, I am good at jigsaw puzzles. Seriously. 500 pieces? 1000 pieces? 10000 pieces? It doesn’t matter. Give me a card table, a chair, and maybe some gummy bears and I will fly through the puzzle. And no, I will not use the picture on the front of the box. That’s cheating. So there, I said it. I can teach you a thing or two about puzzling.

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About the Author: Marcus Cederström

Marcus Cederström has been writing for the Transparent Swedish Blog since 2009. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Oregon, a Master's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a PhD in Scandinavian Studies and Folklore from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has taught Swedish for several years and still spells things wrong. So, if you see something, say something.


Comments:

  1. Corinne:

    This is interesting… facebook as the undoing of jantelagen.
    I don’t know why I didn’t connect this to jantelagen before, but that must be why none of my Swedish friends fill out much of anything on their Info page on facebook beyond school and city. Rarely do they list interests, quotes, music, and never the About Me.

  2. anonymous:

    what does puzzling have to do with jantalagen?

  3. Minty:

    If you like doing puzzles without the picture you should try doing a wasgij (Jigsaw backwards). The front of the box is a clue to what you are constructing, and you have to guess what it is that they (the people on the box) see. I’ve seen them in Zetterlunds. 🙂 Ive done about 4 of them and they are so much fun!

  4. Rebekah:

    Well-written post … succinct and to the point. It’s a very complex subject to try and penetrate … Jante lagen, that is.

    For starters, that question «Why, we don’t have any culture?» Partly, that doesn’t have anything to do with Jante. I think they have the word ‘culture’ screwed up. When they hear the word culture, they think of folklore, dances and stuff like that. Sweden only do that on Midsummer and were you to ask them about what American culture is they wouldn’t know that either.

    I’ve lived with Jante lagen for forty nine years, then I moved to Canada. Moving away from there has made me look upon it more … thoroughly. It’s an amazing concept…and it’s probably more complex that you see at a first glance.

    When a Swede says «WHO does she think she IS?» … that applies to ‘you shouldn’t think that you’re better than anybody else’. BUT, deep within the person who says it feels that he or she really is SO much better than the one she’s talking about.

    Personally, I think we all feel that we are REALLY GOOD, we’re just not supposed to say so, because that’s bragging. Bragging is a BIG no-no!

    This whole thing is something everyone that’s considering to move, either to North America or FROM North America to Sweden, should be aware of. It can cause so much grief … real culture clashes!

    After six years away from Jante … I tell you, it still sits there. I guess it’s in my spine … genes, whatever.

    I don’t think there’s any right or wrong here. Is it «right» to be like the Americans and «wrong» to be low-key? Lagom är bäst! ha ha!!!

    Jante lagen has been around for many, many years and somehow, Sweden as a country seems to have managed quite well, in spite of it! We have great athletes, our music export is almost beyond comprehension considering the size of the country…I could make a long list of good things.

  5. Marcus Cederström:

    @Corinne – I really do think as this kind of blatant self-promotion becomes more common, Jantelagen will take the hit.

    @anonymous – nothing. Except that Im good at it. And I told you. Which is horribly anti-jantelagen.

    @Minty – oooh… that sounds pretty cool.

    @Rebekah – Im so glad you brought up lagom. I actually think that lagom plays a role in what I was writing. The lagom level between jantelagen and social media. That just right moment where individuality and pride in oneself is balanced with the desire to not lord over others.

  6. Tatiana:

    Hej! Well-written post. Just one quick comment. Jantelagen didn’t appear from fiction, and this fiction wasn’t entirely Norwegian. First, The writer was born in Denmark, but the book war indeed written in Norwegian. Jantelagen means Jante Law, and Jante is a fiction name of the village where the author grew up in Denmark. He was very smart in school, and because of that faced negative attitude towards him from other people, because they had this mentality, described in the book as those unwritten laws. when the book was published, many people recognized themselves in, and the discussion became so big, that even in Scandinavia many people refer to Jantelagen without reading the book. Therefore, it is not, as you said, ” A fictional law has been institutionalized in a country of nine million people.” This unwritten law was institutionalized hundred years before (and still is in their minds, as far as I see), the book only was a first step to make people to talk abt that.

  7. Marcus Cederström:

    You’re right, the ideas behind Jantelagen are not completely fictional. However, it is important to note that Jantelagen, in its written form, did originate in a work of fiction. Despite the fact that there may have been a hint of truth in the list of laws, and that many people recognized their own everyday behavior in the laws, it took the publishing of the list to institutionalize Jantelagen. Without the publishing of the fictional work, Jantelagen would not have been discussed as it is today. Because of the book, Jantelagen gave a name to cultural attitudes of an entire region allowing, as you say, many Scandinavians to discuss the law without ever having read the book. I would argue that without the law being put into written form, Jantelagen would have never become a part of the Swedish culture as it did, but instead an abstract, and undefined, cultural behavior.

  8. Michael Boyd:

    A Swedish cousin once told me that drinking served a similar purpose to the one you are ascribing to facebook. Certain conversations can occur only with the anonymity drunkenness provides.

    This was, of course, said during an evening of partying!

  9. Marcus Cederström:

    Good point! Of course, people aren’t drinking nearly as much as they are on facebook. I hope.

  10. garance:

    Jante lagen…. not sure if its helps the Swedes (humbleness is a good quality ) or sets them back… http://www.thenewbieguide.se/swedes-the-jante-law-and-how-it-affects-you-as-a-newbie/