Monday, October 26, 2009

The Swedish concept of 'lagom', Jante Law, and the fact that Americans just can't escape!

This post was drafted on September 12, 2008. Twelve days after I moved back to the United States from Denmark. The bottom of the post is italicized, which generally means I didn't write it. I probably intended to use parts of it for commentary, and never got around to it. I'm not sure where I was going with the title of this post... "the fact that Americans just can't escape!" Hmm... I'll have to think about that, it's intriguing. I think I was going somewhere.

A few days ago I discovered Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations show on The Travel Channel. In this particular episode, he went to Sweden. In addition to watching Anthony eat pigs knuckles, try to glass blow his own bowl, visit Lapland to hunt reindeer (where he claims he had previously gotten "flat out lied to about the connection between Lapland and lap dancing"), and sing traditional (non-ABBA!) Swedish songs, I learned about the Swedish concept of 'lagom.' According to my favorite internet resource, Wikipedia (I know, I know!), Lagom is 'a Swedish word with no direct English equivalent, meaning "just the right amount", "enough, sufficient, adequate, just right", "in moderation", "balance," "suitable", "average." But whereas words like "sufficient" and "average suggest some degree of abstinence, scarcity, or failure, lagom carries the connotation of perfection or appropriateness.'

The Wikipedia entry elaborates that "the word "lagom" has no exact translation in English, although similar words exist in some neighboring languages. [...] In a single word, lagom is said to describe the basis of the Swedish national psyche, one of consensus and equality. In recent times Sweden has developed greater tolerance for risk and failure as a result of severe recession in the early 1990s. Nonetheless, it is still widely considered ideal to be modest, avoid extremes, and seek optimal solutions."

Hearing Bourdain talk about about this Swedish concept throughout the episode was interesting because it got me thinking about Scandinavian culture in general and discussions I've had with Danish friends about how the culture and mentality of the United States greatly differs from that which is followed de facto in Denmark. In Denmark (and the rest of Scandinavia, according to Wikipedia), they seem to adhere to a "phenomenon" known as Jante Law. Jante Law is apparently practiced under the different nomenclature of Tall Poppy Syndrome in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Jante Law, or Janteloven (The Jante Law) as it is called in Danish, is made up of ten variations on the the of homogeneity. "Don't think you're anyone special or that you're better than us."

In the book, those Janters who transgress this unwritten "law" are regarded with suspicion and some hostility, as it goes against communal desire in the town, which is to preserve social stability and uniformity.

Later in his book, Sandemose adds an 11th rule, formulated as a question:

11. You think I don't know anything about you? (Du tror måske ikke jeg ved noget om dig?)

This is the threat of punishment—that other Janters will know something about those who transgress, which can be used to punish them. Emphasis can be either on know or on you, or both.

It has to be said that the general understanding of the law was an essential and fully integrated part of the Danish and Norwegian societies long before it was ever written down. Sandemose, however, explicitly said that he had seen the Jante law in operation in all countries he had been in.

The rules are not only applied outwards; Danes apply the rules equally towards themselves. This means that the rules of the Jante Law become a sort of social stabilizer where one does not wish to be either too high above or too far below others socially and economically.

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