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Jante Law and Order – the rules that built Danish culture

Danes are known for many things:

From design, to handball, to their level of coziness that is so high, it has its own name – “hygge”. If you spend time digging even deeper into Danish culture, you’ll discover that they have the reputation of being modest and reserved to the extent that it is bordering on aloof. Just like there’s a special word for feeling cozy in Danish, there is a term for the unwritten law governing behavior in Denmark. You’ll want to read about the Jante Law. It has been challenged lately by for example athletes inclined to believe they are the best. But can something so deep-rooted really change?

History of the Jante Law in Danish culture

The Jante Law comes from a Danish novel from the 1930’s – ‘En flygtning krydser sit spor’ (a refugee crosses their track) by Aksel Sandemose. In the story, the people of Jante, a town inspired by Sandemose’s hometown of Nykøbing Mors, follow 10 behavioral commandments. These boil down to how you are never above anyone else. They include (translated from Danish):

  •       “Don’t think you are anything”.
  •       “Don’t think you are smarter than us”.

Are Danes so traditional that they live by a book from the 1930s? Perhaps it is more likely that Danes always behaved like this, and this is what inspired Sandemose to write the story.

In the Danes’ defense, it is embedded below the surface rather than something people talk about frequently. There are no secret Jante Law meetings to decide if outsiders are behaving in an acceptable way.

The best thing about the Danish way:

Whatever the Danes are doing, it seems to be working, they are consistently on top of the world happiness index. It’s gotten to the point that publications have expressed disappointment when Denmark “only” come in third on the list.

Here’s the deal:

Understanding Danes

When you are as humble as the Danes are, life is simple. Enjoying ‘hygge’ and everyday pleasures with people who are worth your time is characteristic of the Danes. The Danish lifestyle is so celebrated that “hygge” is being exported and the balance of Copenhagen is inspiring design include Nordgreen watches.

Elite and they know it

One of the challenges to the law as documented in Danish newspaper Berlingske is the rise of elite, youth-athletes. Those that feel it’s OK to say, “I’m the best”. To say, “I don’t want to be second place”. While this type of thinking is typical in other countries, it seems Danes are coming around too.

If we accept that being modest about saying you’re good at something has its charm, the next question is then how do you break the ice with the Danes?

Those aloof Danes

Notorious for being slow to open up socially. The coziness Danes love is shared with people in their inner circle, who they are already comfortable with. Get out of your comfort zone and approach a Dane today – they are very friendly once you get to know them. If you are an expat, a visitor or anyone else spending extended time with Danes, know that you will get through to them eventually. They really are quite great.

What’s the bottom line?

Understanding Danes is the first step to getting them to open up and the Jante Law is embedded into society and permeates all aspects of life. Happy and humble, these are the friends you want to have, don’t let their aloof first impression discourage you! Now you know that when they keep a safe distance, it’s nothing personal. They’re just being law-abiding citizens.


Stay tuned for more Copenhagen content!

March 26, 2019 by Nordgreen Copenhagen

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