I’ve now entered the sixth week of study abroad in Uppsala, Sweden. Over the past month and a half, I’ve become accustomed to many norms here that are different from life in the States. Small differences like how people talk in metric system, or how commas are used in place of a period when denoting prices (i.e. 18,00 SEK), or how per hectare is used as unit of measurement instead of per kilo in grocery stores, etc. But more importantly, I’ve come to learn about a social unwritten rule that (most) Swedish people live by. Ok, ‘live by’ might be too strong of a phrase but at least they try to behave according to this thing called the Law of Jante (pronounced YAN-TEH).
I’ve heard about the Jantelagen from before I left Hawaii. While I was doing a little research on Sweden, I had a chance to interview one of the study abroad alumni who studied in Uppsala University. That was when I first heard of the Jantelagen and my initial reaction was a mix of befuddlement and interest. But alas my poor memory had shoved it far passed the back of my brain, so far that I forgot about it until last month. After arriving in Sweden, during my summer Swedish language course, the topic was brought up again. It is said that the Law of Jante was first mentioned in a fictional book — perhaps it was a children’s book. The book was about a village of people who lived by this set of rules*:
- 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 imagine yourself better 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 laugh at us.
- You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
- You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
Now, if this is anyone’s first time reading about Jantelagen I’m sure there’s a load of questions and mix of emotions flowing in. Some people react positively and some negatively, it depends on what kind of lifestyle they’re currently living in. From what I personally see, this sounds like collectivism where the “we” is held in higher priority and importance than the “I”. In contrast, United States value individualism where each person decides their own stance on issues without the pressure of conforming to the mass (or the “we”). To be honest, I’m not educated enough in the area to make an extensive pro’s and con’s but I’m sure there are ups and downs to each system. That being said, it doesn’t mean Swedish people discourage a person from expressing their own uniqueness. However, my Swedish language teacher said that if you’re working in a group context (like in a company or maybe even as a student in a group project) you’re discouraged to out-perform other members of your group. If there comes a situation where someone does out-perform the others, there’s a chance that your superior will take you aside and reprimand you for doing too good. BUT! (yes, there’s a but here as well) that does not mean everyone underperforms their tasks together. Everyone in Sweden works hard when it’s time to work, they do their job and are accountable for it. Just the “going an extra mile” — or in this country — “an extra kilometer” is not often encouraged.
Because of this concept, there’s a sweet spot in between “too good” and “too bad”. That just right spot is known here as lagom. I’m not sure if there’s a direct translation to English but it’s a concept of being just enough, or just right. And this is used almost anywhere; ordering coffee? How hot would you like it? Oh, just lagom. How much sugar? Lagom, please. Milk? …you get the idea. And in some magical, telepathetical force, the person serving would know exactly how much sugar or milk is lagom. It’s still mind-blowing every time I think about it. But the funny thing is, I tried saying “just lagom” when a Swedish person was trying to pour a cup of coffee for me but he paused for a little while and said “Ok, but how much do you want it?” ʱªʱªʱª (ᕑᗢूᓫ∗) Maybe it doesn’t work every time…or maybe because I’m a foreigner who hasn’t completely grasped what lagom is yet. I’d say the latter’s more accurate.
(Pictures in this journal entry has nothing to do with what’s discussed. It’s quite difficult to illustrate the point of lagom so here are several pictures of the campus building.)
*Jantelagen taken from Twitter, by Gigi Gigiadze. Original picture at –> https://twitter.com/gigiadze/status/922085257918189574