Thursday, February 14, 2013

A new colleague, the Law of Jante and Volvo cars

Not sure how a brief chat with a work colleague today ended up in us talking about modeling (I’m certainly no candidate) and then about a fascinating law of Jante. She was basically telling me how in her home land of Denmark people would not necessarily embrace the success of a super-model. The more I thought about that the more I thought "how limiting" and might this effect a nation, indeed nations. Could this, for example, explain that car (Volvo) no one wants to drive behind - although that's becoming a thing of the past.

Wikipedia tells us that the Law of Jante is used colloquially as a sociological term to negatively describe an attitude towards individuality and success common in Sweden and Scandinavia the term refers to a mentality which de-emphasizes individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while discouraging those who stand out as achievers.

In essence this denies the individual the belief that he or she has any self-worth. It creates an illusion about the collective: The illusion serves to isolate the individual and make him or her feel lonely, worthless or ostracized by the community. A strict way of life, of extreme humbleness and so present in everyday life.

This, it turns out, is a concept created by the Danish author Aksel Sandemose, who in his novel A fugitive crosses his tracks identified the Law of Jante as ten rules. Here are the ten rules:

1.    You're not to think you are anything special.
2.    You're not to think you are as good as us.
3.    You're not to think you are smarter than us.
4.    You're not to convince yourself that you are better than us.
5.    You're not to think you know more than us.
6.    You're not to think you are more important than us.
7.    You're not to think you are good at anything.
8.    You're not to laugh at us.
9.    You're not to think anyone cares about you.
10. You're not to think you can teach us anything.

So this seriously interesting and touches on the notion of how cultures make people conform. For example, the Japanese have a saying, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” That is, act like other people, don’t show off, or else. These forms of social pressure are particularly pronounced in hierarchical cultures, as in East Asia, where people are supposed to know their place, and in small towns, where everyone interacts regularly with everyone else.

It’s interesting to note that Sandemose's novel portrays the small Danish town Jante, that was modeled upon his native town Nykøbing Mors. I’m guessing Danes (and all of us really) have a protracted period of learning the ways of the world, and we internalize social norms and folk beliefs, before it occurs to us to ask the critical question of why are following a particular cultural practice. This is why it is said that, “You can’t choose your culture. Your culture chooses you.”

So what's it really all about? 
Is it an effort of over protectiveness; not wanting anyone to loose, fall outside of a particular society. Or is it more about being afraid to see others win.
 Some will say, the Law of Jante has  to a very large extent prohibited development. 

If one asks a Swede what is the most prevalent characteristic of their society, they would probably say, "We are envious of our neighbors good fortune." The Swedish Institute of Public Opinion Research found that in a poll conducted of which traits Swedes identify themselves mostly with, "Envious" was at the top of the list with 49% of the respondents. What is behind the prevalence of envy in this prosperous, industrialized, yet intensely jealous nation? Below is Google's search volume index for The Law of Jante, clearly people are searching for answers.

It seems the Law of Jante isn’t merely a set of laws, it is the very core of the speech of the people, and all that they say can be argued to go back to the Law of Jante.  Envy, despite being a Christian sin, is a principle part of Jante's law, as the result of breaking this social code means that your neighbors will despise you for your individuality, uniqueness, or an excess show of wealth. In fact, one could venture to say that in these societies, breaking Jante's law is in and of itself much worse than committing the sin of envy. And so now to Volvo.

Premium-brand buyers outside Scandinavia love a bit of bling in their motoring diet. They want to lord it over their neighbours in ways that would breach every one of the Jante laws. And yet there remains a market for discretion, particularly in the current climate. These days there’s an air of recessionary restraint that might just blow some opportunities Volvo’s way. Out of adversity comes opportunity, and so forth.

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