We’re having visitors from New York, and they brought with them the brilliant Time Out Copenhagen guide. Here’s a quote:
If you ever find yourself wanting to open a can of worms in the company of Danes ask them about Janteloven, the Law of Jante. Jantelov is a uniquely Danish phenomenon created by the misanthropic writer, Aksel Sandemose. His 1933 novel En flygtning krydser sit spor (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks) is set in a fictional Danish town called Jante. Based on his experiences of small-town Danish life, Sandemose depicted Jante as a suffocatingly law-ridden rown for oppressively small-minded people (and the writer eventually upped and left for Sweden). (Lars: Norway, wasn’t it?)
Jantelov essentially distils Denmark’s collectivist, conformist, homogenous nature and blends it with Sandemose’s unique outlook. Its basic tenets include: “Thou shalt not presume that thou art any wiser than us” (no. 3); and “Thou shalt not presume that thou are going to amount to anything” (no. 8). Generally, “getting above oneself” is frowned upon; instead, modesty and understatement is the accepted norm.
Though it is a fictional creation, many Danes still genuinely believe Jantelov to be a Medieval creed. You should never underestimate the influence of Janteloven – it pervades all of Danish society, much to the irritation of the current queen who has spoken out against its self-defeating influence. It is why, for example, everyone drives egalitarian Peugeots as opposed to exclusive Mercedes (the preserve of taxi drivers). If a Dane does buy a Mercedes, he should be prepared to put up with friends asking “How much is the fare to the aitport?”, by way of a joke. As hard as it might be for foreigners to understand, Danes genuinely find it embarrassing if one of their friends exhibits their greater wealth in such a way.
In other words, Danes are masters of the tall poppy syndrome, though they prefer to describe it using an old Danish proverb: “The higher up a monkey climbs, the more you see of its bottom.” (Though exceptions are made for the Danish football team, Victor Borge, and other popular heroes.)
Though Jantelov is more closely adhered to in the provinces, do not be fooled by thrusting, cosmopolitan Copenhageners who claim it has no place in their modern lives. Scratch the surface of the city, and Jantelov isn’t far beneath.
See also how this is influencing me.