Toward a Saner Society? Part 2

Flying Insects and Janteloven


A Tale of Two Insects

In my final undergraduate year, my father and I traveled to Mérida in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. While there, we covered a wide range of eateries: from an artistic cafe on the Zocalo, to a local greasy-spoon with sandwiches in paper, to a quaint establishment on a side street where Dad curiously ended up wedged between the table and an 18th-century wardrobe.

Ciudad Merida

Merida cafeteria with patient servers, ca. 1986

We pretended to be Spanish in the cafeteria we habitually chose for breakfast, because an American tourist had taken it upon himself to “educate” the patiently smiling staff (“How ya expect to run a restaurant if ya can’t say ‘cucumber’? Say ‘cucumber’ – c’mon, CUE-cum-BRRR!”) And despite the excellence of our own hotel’s food, we never got used to being the only ones in the cavernous dining room, eyed by a line of punctilious waiters and serenaded in the vast silence by three improbable mariachi performers.

On the whole, we enjoyed a run of excellent luck … until we happened on a little restaurant that took its name from the neighboring Parque de Santa Lucia.

“Santa Lucia,” far from being a Scandinavian festival in my family’s vocabulary, has become a descriptor for the incredulity one feels as a bad dining experience steadily worsens. The atmosphere was ominous from the start: our fellow diners wore expressions that better suited anxious relatives in a hospital waiting room, the music was grim, and the menu left a lot of room for food poisoning. Consequently, Dad – who drinks perhaps five full glasses of North Carolina wine a year – ordered a beer. It seemed a safe bet, as it hadn’t been made on the premises.

A fly had been hovering unenthusiastically over the table while we perused the menu, as if awaiting its ritual duty to descend on the diners’ food. On the arrival of the beer, however, it put on an apocalyptic burst of energy and executed a perfect dive straight into the glass. Once my father and I stopped laughing, we hailed the waiter (who also was the owner) and tried to resume a semi-normal approach to eating out.

This illusion was shattered when the man stared mournfully into the glass, then gently retrieved the fly with a soup spoon and bore it tenderly back to the kitchen, with a sense of ceremony rarely seen outside of state funerals.

It took a long while before Dad could gather himself to ask for another beer.

But he did.

Fiskebrygge at Kristiansand

The Fiskebrygge in Kristiansand, Norway

Last summer, my friends and I were sitting outside at a restaurant on the Fiskebrygge (Fisherman’s Wharf) in Kristiansand, Norway. It was a lovely night, with the light not fading until around 10:30 p.m., and we were having some of the best fish soup I have ever eaten.

Unfortunately, Scandinavia was experiencing an upsurge in summer wasp activity, and they were especially aggressive around diners. I had managed to keep the guard assigned to me at bay through about three-quarters of the bowl, but then he faked toward my beer, reversed, and did a kamikaze plunge right into the remaining soup.

There was a moment of paralysis around the table, followed by a shrug from my friends and their dedicated resumption of dining. When the server came by, she found me an extra spoon and napkin, so I could remove the offending creature. And that was most definitely that.

I did not ask for more soup.

I wouldn’t have dared.

What Is Janteloven?

In his 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose satirically depicted a small Danish town called Jante that followed a set of rules to ensure none of the residents got above themselves:

  1. Don’t consider that you’re anything special.
  2. Don’t consider yourself in the same standing as any of us.
  3. Don’t consider yourself smarter than any of us.
  4. Don’t fancy that you might be better than any of us.
  5. Don’t think you know more than any of us.
  6. Don’t think you can rise above any of us.
  7. Don’t believe you will amount to anything significant.
  8. Don’t laugh at anyone.
  9. Don’t believe others care about you.
  10. Don’t believe you can teach us anything.

An American Experience

The first time I came across Sandemose’s “Jante law” (Janteloven in Norwegian and Danish, Jantelagen in Swedish), I found it very familiar (and in no way negative). I’d grown up with it, with no Scandinavian background, and in a highly urban setting, no less. Indeed, when I recently read these “ten commandments of Jante” to my father, he nodded and said, “Sounds reasonable.” Then he frowned, recalling his Virginia-North Carolina upbringing, and added, “Unfortunately, in the South they used to call it ‘knowing your place.'”

I see my experience of the Janteloven mind-set as informed by several factors: my Southern, Germanic grandmother (and, to a milder extent, my father); the Lutheran Church, with its emphasis on Pauline attitudes toward humility (“Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded” – Romans 3:27; “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” – Galatians 6:14); and a Japanese neighbor, herself raised in a work ethic that combined dedication to the task with complete submission to one’s elders and relinquishing notions of personal specialness in achievement. What all these unconsciously agreed upon was that an only child was a ticking time bomb of entitlement – especially in the America undergoing the “Me Generation” revolution – who needed to be defused, or at least channeled into a relatively harmless explosion in later years.

But the sentiment was never merely a warning to me. It included the assurance that others needed to be “brought down a peg” when they started thinking themselves superior – intellectually, athletically, financially, or in terms of appearance. The message was highly egalitarian, in its way: don’t think you’re special, and know that others who think they’re special are “too big for their britches.” Putting yourself above others in any way is a very ugly trait.

In the United States of the 1970s, it seemed a lot of people were saying they were special. But that was nothing compared to today.

Today, Janteloven seems an affront to an emphasis on individual uniqueness, self-esteem, and achievement that has snowballed globally – and sometimes, subtly – since the 1970s. The diagnostic decade of the 1990s especially saw a rise in “me-focused” pop psychology. President Bill Clinton “felt our pain,” Prozac heralded the arrival of a flood of pharmaceuticals addressing chronic unhappiness, and television personalities from Oprah Winfrey to John Bradshaw set about nurturing our inner children into recovery from the shame instilled in our childhoods. (It is one  of life’s great ironies that such a fiscally responsible and prosperous decade – witnessing the highest real GDP since the 1960s, a balanced U.S. budget, and a forecast of government surpluses as long as taxes weren’t slashed and spending wasn’t raised – also seemed to experience a great depression, albeit not of the economic type.) After 9/11, American specialness, at least, underwent a defiant upsurge, tinged with the self-absorption that has become a hallmark of the new millennium: “Why are they mad at us? We’re good people! We deserve better! It’s our right to get what we want and do what we want!”

The past 40 years in the United States have seen a lot of emphasis on “me” – psychologically, financially, institutionally, and culturally. That ego does not take kindly to being told it isn’t privileged, worthy of all rewards, capable of great things, or, generally, the center of attention.

The Norwegian Difference

To begin to grasp how Janteloven plays out in Norway, one has to set aside the lens of specialness that informs all U.S. upbringing – including my own. For while I find Sandemose’s commandments familiar, they were always juxtaposed in the United States with a sense of uniqueness (and, yes, American entitlement) that I wasn’t supposed to be claiming.

Here is where I find travel guides more useful than analytical discussions, for the former approach a culture as a totally alien entity the traveler or immigrant must understand in order to function. (This is the Buddhist “beginner’s mind” with a vengeance.) The Norway – Culture Smart! guide, written by Scotswoman Linda March, lays out the groundwork for the Norwegian service experience:

Norwegians in shops, banks, restaurants, and bars are polite and helpful enough, but if you are expecting anything beyond that then you will be disappointed. A culture of equality for all means that serving others has somehow become confused with subservience, an undesirable quality…. These people are not deliberately snubbing you: there is just little culture of service in the country. (100-101)

Where I’d disagree is that there is any confusion of service and subservience. To call a refusal to blend service with subservience “confusion” seems to me part of the Anglo-American capitalist lens: the expectation that service means deference, hyper-accommodation of wants, and treating someone as particularly worthy of attention.

Servers, as my father grimly noted from a troubled Southern history, by this ethos should “know their place.” In Norway, they do – and it’s the same place you’re in, mate, so get over it.

Underlying this refusal to “go the extra service mile” is Janteloven – by which I was completely quashed when the wasp succeeded in dive-bombing my soup. There is a strong line of logical self-sufficiency in the Norwegian psyche, and I had become familiar enough with it to hear the unspoken argument:

Well, if you’re going to eat outside in the summer, you’re going to encounter wasps. Everybody knows that. And there’s nothing unique about you that merits somebody else fishing an inevitable insect out of your soup, much less getting you more soup so you can collect a few more wasps, just because you are determined to eat outdoors. You have hands: here’s a napkin and a spoon to help you on your way.

The attitude may run against the intended moral lesson in more than a century of “fly in my soup” jokes, but it’s hard to argue with. Most important, it’s underscored by an economic and governmental system that makes it possible – and that is a slap on the “invisible hand of the market.” In the United States, the minimum wage for “tipped workers” is $2.13/hour, making many reliant on tips even to reach the U.S. minimum wage of $7.25/hour. While Norway has no official minimum wage, the average take-home pay for a full-time waiter is around $3,100/month – after the taxes that provide for health insurance, pension benefits, and unemployment insurance. (This is derived from average total monthly earnings of 24,300 NOK, at the current exchange rate of 5.45 NOK to the dollar, minus 30% in compulsory deductions.)

Compare that to monthly pay cited for, say, Applebee’s (around $1,500/month), and keeping in mind that the American server is most likely managing his or her own health care and any pension outside Social Security, and you understand why a Norwegian server will hand you a spoon rather than apologize profusely, round up another bowl, and pay devoted extra attention to the customer. The Norwegian server’s survival is not dependent on the customer’s happiness – and so the Norwegian server does not have to beg, nor enable the adopted attitude of temporary disability in the customer.

The Usefulness of Janteloven

Scandinavians, and Scandinavian Americans especially (or those thoroughly exposed to them, such as Garrison Keillor), have struggled with Janteloven and the “equality at all costs” mind-set, whether mockingly (as Sandemose intended), humorously, or seriously. To be sure, a “negative lens” may be trained on such an aversion to standing out. One may consider it disempowering, discouraging of originality and creative expression, and detrimental in a global economy that many see as requiring more accommodation to others’ expectations and demands.

I, too, have been startled by some of the extremes of Janteloven. For example, a series of recent serious telephone outages affecting Telenor – Norway’s main telecommunications provider and the sixth largest mobile phone operator in the world – were met with apologies, but also with the CEO’s remark that “I cannot stand here and say that this won’t happen again.” Having spent a week bombarded by the U.S. approach of “promise the moon, even if you don’t deliver and spend weeks complaining that they actually want the moon,” I was struck by Telenor’s apparent obliviousness toward the marketing connotations of playing up “We can’t control these things” over “We’re doing everything possible.”

Along similar lines, U.S. English professor Eric Dregni, who documented his year in Trondheim in his book In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream, successfully depicts the less-opinionated American’s confusion at how to pursue a career in a society seemingly marked by a stubborn resistance toward rewarding achievement and striving in general:

I could imagine that to obey the Janteloven, résumés probably remained rather sparse. If I looked for a job in Norway, I’d better be careful not to talk up my accomplishments too much or I’d look like I’m bragging. But how do employers know what you’ve done? (23)

A conundrum indeed. In this case, however, I find it a refreshing alternative to the plethora of American resources that encourage applicants to write cover letters assuring potential employers of their superiority and exceptional ability, so that they may attain the outcome of being told they cannot take two consecutive weeks of vacation, will receive no benefits, and must “add value” to be worthy of a pay increase.

Clearly, Janteloven and the system with which it is integrated cannot be reduced to “all good” or “all bad.” For American society today, however, I find the best elements to be a healthy corrective to an attitude of deserving that is, I believe, clogging the pipeline. While right-wing elements in American politics have long enjoyed laying this “entitlement attitude” at the doorstep of unions, government workers, welfare recipients, and immigrants, it less prominently, but more detrimentally, shores up:

Belle or Crone

The optical illusion: belle or crone?

  • the U.S. business structure, which believes itself “deserving” of tax breaks, subsidies, bailouts, legislation loopholes allowing sheltering of assets, low wage requirements, and no oversight on its activities
  • the corporate elite, which “deserves” bonuses and “must” keep them high to attract “the best” people
  • the most weakening elements of consumer culture, wherein we are encouraged to believe we “deserve” an iPad or eating out every night or a new car, even at the price of going into debt to acquire it
  • the new elitism among political factions who argue that people “deserve” to keep resources to themselves, not to have to share with others in society

Thus the debate over “equality vs. entitlement,” like the concept of Janteloven, is a little like the optical illusion of the belle and the crone. Vision is a tricky thing, and it becomes delusion when it hardens into only one perspective.

And as other commentators have noted, a delusional society is dangerous indeed.