The Danish Secret

The Danes have a dirty little secret. Look at the all the hype about happy Denmark – perfect social welfare community, tight knit and socially conscious.

But the social welfare community has roots with a pattern of group behaviour within Scandinavian communities, which negatively portrays and criticizes individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate.

It has been observed as a form of behaviour for centuries, but was identified as a series of unwritten rules, the Jante Law, by the Norwegian/Danish author Aksel Sandemose in his fiction novel A fugitive crosses his tracks 1933, where he portrays the small Danish town Jante (modelled on his own hometown Nykøbing Mors as it was at the beginning of the 20th century).

Many Danes that you ask about Jante law are a bit ashamed of it – it is considered a snide, jealous and narrow small-town mentality which refuses to acknowledge individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while punishing those who stand out as achievers.

There are ten different rules in the law as defined by Sandemose, but they are all variations on a single theme and are usually referred to as a homogeneous unit: Don’t think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us.

The ten rules are:

        Don’t think that you are special.

        Don’t think that you are of the same standing as us.

        Don’t think that you are smarter than us.

        Don’t fancy yourself as being better than us.

        Don’t think that you know more than us.

        Don’t think that you are more important than us.

        Don’t think that you are good at anything.

        Don’t laugh at us.

        Don’t think that any one of us cares about you.

Don’t think that you can teach us anything.

Ask a Dane and they will tell you Jante Law is terrible, yes it exists but they hate it. They hate to admit it exists. Yet they almost feel powerless to change it.

But why is it so terrible? If carefully looked at the Laws could be re-written in a PR friendly, spinned way. Indeed, more like the way it is actually practiced in Denmark today.

Sandemose’s Jante law is harsh, and a bit mean but in Denmark, the unwritten and nearly unspoken actions behind Jante law are more subtle and almost polite. The idea is to avoid creating envy in others.

It is better to want what you have than to have what you want, Danish proverb 

Several economists have stressed the paradox between high ambition and the stagnation of happiness in high-income countries. The creators of the Jante law realized that rising aspirations created by the desperate search for status would be detrimental to their collective community.

Why play that game? The creators of Jante Law changed the rules of the game by encouraging modesty and reducing envy by squashing individual ambition. They knew that individual success and prosperity was a zero sum game.

In normal competitions in order for one to win, others had to lose. But why should anyone value such as system? Why not create a system with different values? Values that are non material based. Values based on collective success and a win-win attitude. Values like the Danish system.

Like the young man in Sandemose’s book who moved to this fictional small town in Denmark, I too experienced that coming from one of the largest superpowers in the world provided me with no credibility on this island, called Denmark.

My money was useless, (dollar is worth nothing outside of USA), my attitude was too American and (that was not a good thing) and I thought Denmark should change – better work ethic (work longer and therefore harder?), shops should be open ALWAYS!, why weren’t people impressed with what I do? 

If I was here to push my American ideals, on the Danes, I could just forget about it, turn around pack my Louis Vuitton suitcase and get on the next SAS flight out of here.

The Jante laws are here to preserve the idyllic, happy communal living standards in Denmark. And if I wanted to live here, I had to learn the unwritten laws, shut up and pay my taxes.

By Sharmi Albrechtsen • July 2, 2010


8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Posted July 6, 2010 at 11:20 am by Peter H. Fogtdal | Permalink

    Very interesting blog.

    I agree with you on all your initial Jante points except for the one that youre not allowed to laugh at the Danes.

    You are! And let me give you an example

    I wrote a blog that won an award in Denmark called Denmark for Dummies, A Superficial Introduction to the Happiest People in the World, and it was pretty harsh on my countrymen, but absolutely no one got insulted, probably because it was humorous.

    If you’re interested, here it is, http://fogtdal.blogspot.com/2008/06/denmark-for-dummies-superficial.html

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Posted July 6, 2010 at 4:34 pm by Sharmi Albrechtsen | Permalink

    Of course, Danes and others love to laugh with themselves but don’t laugh at them…

  3. Posted July 9, 2010 at 4:16 am by pedalpusher | Permalink

    The Jante Law? I read it and it sounds just like …Miami!!

    If I lived there, I would feel right at home! (Looks for Passport) :)

  4. Posted July 11, 2010 at 5:19 am by martel | Permalink

    hi, Sharmi.

    My fiance and I are considering moving to Denmark. I have been reading your post on here. We currently live in the United States. I was just wondering what you think of our decision?

  5. Posted July 12, 2010 at 3:10 am by Lara Hinckley | Permalink

    I love my Danish friends! We do not need to perfect to one another to enjoy friendships across the globe. We need only to be kind and understanding to each other. What makes us different is what makes us interesting. Judge not, least ye be judged.

  6. Posted July 12, 2010 at 1:25 pm by Sharmi Albrechtsen | Permalink

    Dear Martel and fiance

    Denmark is a wonderful country on so many levels. My advice to you is to learn the language, it is your key to integration. Please keep on reading…I hope my aditional Blog posts will help your re-location.

    warmest regards
    Sharmi

  7. Posted July 19, 2010 at 10:53 pm by Terry | Permalink

    I love your analysis, it is really funny and true! But what is jante law like in modern Denmark today?

  8. Posted July 19, 2010 at 10:57 pm by K | Permalink

    The Jante Loven sounds pretty awful, please explain how it can be a good thing…how can removing individualism related to happiness??

Happy Danes

Sharmi Albrechtsen

Albrechtsen is an American journalist living in Denmark writing about the Danish Happiness phenomenon. Interestíng perspectives and comments from this Blog have been incorporated in her new book, A Piece of Danish Happiness (available on Amazon). Check out her website http://www.happydenmark.com.com or email her on sharmiindenmark@gmail.com. She can also be reached on +45 5117 6876