Jantelov: A primer

Once a Danish-Norwegian wrote a satire sending up small town Scandinavia. It was called “A Fugitive Crosses his Path” and I read the first half when I could speak rudimentary Danish and can report it is about poverty and things “suddenly” happening every new paragraph. I may be one of the few people who have read even this far but everyone likes to quote the best bit.

In Aksel Sandemose’s jaded vision of Scandinavian village life, anyone who tries to stand out is smacked down. There are eleven rules that, I have to admit, I have read so many times that my eyes slide off them like they are covered in bacon grease. They’re basically “You’re nothing special so who cares”

In other countries, the same thing is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome or by the delightful analogy of crabs in a bucket pulling each other down if they try to get out. These rules have been used to justify everything about Danish society from queue jumping, to racism, to poor school performance, to ‘jokes’ where you upset your friends and back again.

Practically, what Jantelov does, is make everyone in Denmark a fucking nightmare to be with in public unless you know them personally. Since the informal laws of this fictional village in a book no one has read tell the average Dane that no one is above anyone else, this is naturally expanded to the following world-view:-

“No one is special, so get out of my fucking way.”

You see it on the mouth breathers getting onto buses before everyone has got off: you’re nothing special so why should you be able to get out of my way so I can get on? You see it in Ikea when people stop dead in the numerous chokepoints around the store: you’re nothing special, so why would I turn my head 45 degrees to see if you are in danger of collision with me if I stop suddenly. You see it in supermarkets when people shove you aside so they can get at the bread slicer you are still using. You see it in department stores when people let heavy doors slam in your face. YOU ARE NOTHING, ME FIRST.

Most of the Danes I know personally are awesome people, so I am not talking about them and I am probably not talking about you even if I haven’t met you yet. But even the Danes you regard as decent human beings can be affected by Jantelov when they make ‘jokes’ about what an asshole you are. This is fine because you can respond in kind. But they might expand it to make you remember your country is nothing special, especially if you are from the USA. If you respond in kind, they will cut you. That’s just how it is.

Jantelov makes bragging very difficult. You cannot be proud of your achievements or mention them at all, lest you make one of the other crabs in your bucket feel jealous. No great loss to the conversation. But you cannot talk about lah-di-dah ‘elitist’ stuff either, in case people feel like you’re being pretentious. So, you’re only allowed to talk about meatballs, how hard Danish is for foreigners and how difficult the word ‘hygge’ is to understand. I mentioned I was reading A Fugitive Crosses his Path at a dinner party and one of the guests looked like he was going to be aggressively sick on me. Also, you cannot brag in a job search situation either, you have to know people in Denmark who employ others and play badminton with them until they ask you personally if you want to work with them.

In many parents’ evenings, it is common for the teachers to tell the parents to stop worrying, the kid is good enough and shouldn’t we care more about their social skills? Coming from a culture where the parents just want to know their kid is making progress, this seems like a bit of an undershoot. ‘Good enough’ is not the issue. That is set by the average and the average moves with the group. Learning something new and getting better every day, how is that too elitist?

There are people who resist Jante for the most part. They are ‘most people in Denmark according to themselves’. But even if they refuse to pull down other crabs, they are still in a bucket trying to get out with claws around their ankles.

A friend of a friend was at a job interview where they were asked “How do you feel about your customers being  the upper middle class of Danish people… like me?” This story is passed around with amused disbelief by Danes. Who is this person who would consider themselves above someone else AND then share it with another person? Then again, the foreigners who hear that story think it is a pretty ridiculous question to ask. Then again, it’s not ridiculous if you want to employ someone who won’t try to pull at your customers’ crab legs.

Though perhaps I am not being fair. I believed I could tell the dinner party guests about reading Aksel Sandemose without making them feel sick to their stomaches at my presumption because the librarian that issued the book did so with a wry smile (he then went on to being one of my friends). There are plenty of people out there who are not threatened by intellectualism or individualism and of course there are plenty who know how to move through a crowd without inconveniencing every other person. Still, it’s got a lot to answer for.

Dehumanisation in Danish Marketing

Denmark hides behind two national myths to excuse itself from poor behaviour.

1: We are a homogenous nation without a history of having to get along with others

2: We have a unique sense of humour which magically stops anything from being in poor taste

Denmark is now part of a global community and however homogenous they mistakenly imagine their history, they have to get along with others.

Even though this has been true for a long time, it has not stopped them from being outrageously idiotic on their promotional material. Come with me now through the Hall of Shame:-

Those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Let me know in comments what I forgot.

Now I have handled why this shit is wrong before. I’m not going over it again.

I only bring it up because the Swedes complained about the masks in Haribo sweets and so Haribo won’t make them anymore. That means they won’t be available in Denmark.

Sweets stop being available all the time, Haribo don’t owe Denmark crude racial stereotype licquorice. You’d think Haribo not only stopped supplying sweets to Denmark but blocked other brands too, from the over reaction here.

The Metroxpress covered the story with good-natured bafflement about those ‘crazy politically correct Swedes‘ and rabble-rousing pieces about how ‘angry‘ Danes are at the Swedes for ruining their enjoyment of dehumanising sweets.

TV2 interviewed Professor of Philosophy Vincent F. Hendricks, who is half-American half-Danish. I won’t lie, when I saw him, I thought that tv2 had just found a black person to speak for all black people a la The Brass Eye.

The interviewer was bizarre and said that it was a slippery slope, that if you can’t have masks of crude racial stereotypes then you won’t be allowed to have ‘Jødekage’ any more (so-called ‘Jew cakes’ because they were sold in Jewish bakeries in the 1700s not because they are crude racial stereotypes of Jewish faces in biscuit form)

Hendricks was AMAZING. He started out with the homogenous national myth, as a gateway for the heavier criticism that he made. But he made it with love! It was great.

He said that Denmark has been able to get away with being provincial for a long time but now this shit is being noticed and the world will think that Danes are backwards peasants. He also asked why it is just black faces that get this treatment (though south-east Asian faces get it too), and what is it even for? I wish I could find a copy because I’d just put it up on here and not paraphrase wildly.

Anyway. It didn’t work, the Danes are still really into having not to think about de-humanising groups.

That last sentence was a sort of a test. If you were a Dane who got really agitated because I de-humanised you by saying you are all into not having to think about de-humanising groups whilst simultaneously not being all that bothered about the masks, you are a fucking hypocrite.

Homogenous or not, Denmark has to wake up and stop being so childish. This stuff is hurtful. This stuff makes lives harder. Your children don’t come into the world being mouthbreathing peasant scum, YOU make them that way. You do it by having sweets that encourage your children to think that certain groups are only caricatures. You are the reason that when ever I teach Danish kids about Japan or China and I ask what they know already, they reach for their eye corners to stretch them back. You are the reason that white Danish children attack black Danish children with crude racial abuse. You are encouraging it. By saying ‘these groups are not human really’, you are setting your children up to attack them.

And it affects the adults in your country, contributing to micro aggressions (and macro aggressions, face it), which affect the lives of people with facial features being caricatured in these products.

The problem isn’t that crazy Swedes cannot take a joke or Haribo have set themselves up as moral arbiters or black people should realise that intent is magic (“I don’t mean it to be offensive: it isn’t!”) The problem is that Danish people still think that black and Asian people are not all the way human.

So it shows up in Danish culture a lot. It shows up and reinforces the idea over and over. You are all so used to it, you do not see how toxic and off putting it is.

The Swedes want to stop reinforcing it, Haribo don’t want to make a brand of confectionary just for one country especially after conceding it was racist.

Denmark has to evolve or die. It’s not good enough to continue being a hick country with hay in your mouth. It’s not good enough to say you didn’t realise it was racist so it isn’t racist. It’s not good enough to say that since it amuses you, it is acceptable. It’s not good enough to say that since you believe that black people only moved to your country a short time ago, it is not a problem.

You want and need foreigners to do the jobs your own people are incapable of doing. They won’t come here if they think you are racist pieces of shit. They won’t visit you as tourists. They won’t buy your butter cookies at Christmas. YOU will become a joke. Worse than a joke because no one thinks it is exactly funny that you are racist.

The Danish Mentality

You cannot accuse me of topicality. The following was put on a government website two years ago. The reason I’m coming so late to the party is that I was looking at my region’s resources for newbies, including a link to the below article. In Danish (Funnily enough, a lot of the links go to Danish language pages, what on earth?)

This is what they wrote on Workindenmark.dk about The Danish Mentality (The link does not work, at the time of writing, maybe the site is down?)

It’s obviously mostly bollocks (how could you hope to encapsulate 5 million people’s mentality into such a small space?), but there is some truth hiding between the lines. Especially the bit about friends.

What happened to Jante, do you think?

Danish mentality

Informal tone 
Most Danes value equality, cosiness, individuality and democracy. Danes’ tone is informal in comparison with many other countries. Friends, family members and colleagues are addressed with the informal “you” and their first name. It is also normal to address managers by their first name. The informal tone is also found in the educational system, where students address their teachers by first name.

Discussion and debate are fundamental aspects of Dane’s upbringing, both in society and in families. This means that many Danes have a fundamental awareness that it is possible to speak up and have an influence. In the business world, you will find the democratic process and structures that characterise Denmark. Associations also have a social, informative and democratic influence.

Cosiness and humour
Cosiness is a very important part of what one could call the Danish mentality. It can be difficult to translate the Danish concept of “hygge” (cosiness), but you will quickly realise that it is closely related to feeling good about one another and that food and drink are often involved.

Humour is also a significant element, and for many Danes, humour involves a large serving of irony. It can be difficult to understand this irony to start out, but it is important to understand if you wish to understand Danes’ mentality.

Friends and acquaintances
In Denmark, friendships often develop after a long period of acquaintance, and Danes generally distinguish between friends and acquaintances. In their private lives as well as in associations, Danes surround themselves with a network that is developed over a long period of time. A relationship of trust must be established before a Dane will enter into an agreement with a new business partner.

Social individualism
In Denmark, importance is placed on everyone being equal and having equal rights without regard to social background and origin.

Thus, one could be led to believe that Danes are anti-individualists; however, this is far from the truth. As in most other European countries, Danes have a fundamental belief in the rights of the individual and career, housing, etc are selected based on individual needs. Entrepreneurship and initiative are prized and self-confidence is generally high among Danes.

This ability to combine individualism with a focus on the welfare of the group is what one observer dubbed “social individualism”.

Noble Savages

I’ve got a riddle for you. When is an international public relations disaster not a public relations disaster?

Give up? When it happens in Danish!

Denmark is not perfect. But the image projected far and wide of the country is glowing, as if it very well might be. All the green energy and social democracy and liberality! Imagine a functioning welfare state! Imagine a country where women are just as equal as men! What a wonderful country, I wish I lived there.

When the Danish state or a Danish company very publicly shit the bed, there are no international consequences. What happens in Denmark, stays in Denmark.

If you are stupid enough to write about what goes on in English, you will be labelled as bitter, hateful, negative, racist and sometimes even asked to leave. It is not enough for Dane-enthusiasts to disagree with you, they have to bring your character in to disrepute. Nice, guys. Nice.

Bringing the foibles of Denmark to a wider audience is not without its risks, people get really emotionally involved in explaining how because they recognise that Denmark has a good work-life balance and you did not mention it when you were writing about forcible ECT; they are actually “objective” about Denmark. So, that is one reason why not many people do not write about the dark side of Denmark. It’s often emotionally taxing and occasionally dangerous.

Another reason, is the language factor. If I tell you that “hold din kæft” translates as “shut the fuck up” and then the person that said it says “actually, that’s a lot softer, it’s more like ‘shut up'”; what are you supposed to make of that? Is there a difference? Does the difference matter? Why is everyone shouting?

Along with not being sure which translation is closest, there is the no small factor of having to put a lot of Danish news through google translate to check your facts. Google translate is okay but it can only do so much. So, unless you have a Danish speaking correspondent on the ground, you are not going to know what is going on. And that’s only if you know there is something you need to put through google translate. You are never going to read all the Danish news output on the off-chance someone shat the bed.

The last factor, and the most important, is the “noble savage defence”. When Denmark, Danes or a Danish company do something that is socially unacceptable, if people from another country inquire “What happened there? Why are you doing something socially unacceptable?” the answer is “It is our culture. We cannot help ourselves. No one will have been hurt by what happened. It’s how we roll.”

Having no idea if that is true, the interlocutor must take the Noble Savage at face value. They just do things differently in Denmark. We do not understand their ways and we must not impose our cultural values upon them. They know not what they do.

And thusly, this is how “everyone” knows that women’s rights have won in Denmark. Even when clear evidence shows that a major computing company (Dell), has no respect for women in technology because they invite someone (Mads Christensen) to “provoke” by disrespecting women. And then nothing happens because “everyone” knew it was a “joke”. (I knew it was a joke, didn’t stop it being stupid)

Firstly, there is plausible deniability “the translation you have is subtly wrong” and then there is “Danish people have no concept of “bad form” because we are so utopian!” and lastly there is “The illusion of people being offended/thinking it was stupid is caused by people not understanding how jokes work. It’s their problem, we did not mean any disrespect when we massively disrespected women. Many people weren’t offended by it, it’s fine.” (I wasn’t “offended” but it still isn’t okay)

This isn’t just about Dell. This also goes for police abuse of power, beatings and use of pepper spray on protestors. If you spray irritants on a sit-down protest in the US, it sparks memes and outrage. If you do the same in Denmark, literally no one outside gives a fuck. Because it’s just their way. Those savage Danes, they have so much free speech, it’s not at all a worry when the police torture protestors with stress positions and chemical weapons.  It’s just their culture.

Anyway. I thought that was interesting. (Note to angry Dane enthusiasts: Start your own blog about the good things in Denmark, put the links in the comments, thanks)