Cross-culturalism and equality

The past six months I have lived in four different cultures. Obviously, I have learned a lot, but surprisingly I feel like I’ve learned most about my own Nordic roots. Transitioning back into Denmark for a few weeks this March hit me with a hardcore reverse culture shock. Hear me out! My love for little Denmark is unquestionable, but there’s certainly some cultural rules that I do not like. I’ve known them and lived by them without ever noticing, but moving back and forth made me painfully aware.

Now, you Danes might have guessed that I’m talking about the law of Jante, but let me give a quick explanation. In Scandinavia we have this cultural term, Janteloven and it’s “a list of ten rules, that govern how Scandinavians should think about one another.” Basically, it’s a way to ensure everyone is equal. It origins from a novel about a small town called Jante, which has a law consisting of ten commandments all along the lines of “you are not to think you are anything special or have anything to offer”. Strange is it that this all comes from fiction, yet it is a deeply rooted cultural mindset where I grew up.
I never really thought of it, but it was so evident when I returned to Denmark. You really aren’t to think you are something else. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we are walking around demeaning each other, and people definitely celebrate one another. But if someone is to say that they have a certain quality or they are a part of something bigger, people will cringe inside. The cultural code goes like this: please, do not think you have qualities and please, please do not talk about it. It seems like recognizing your own skills means that you naturally consider yourself more important, which is a straight up lie. This is the cultural etiquette, this is the law of Jante. Here’s an encounter that quickly demonstrates how it works: back home I was explaining to a friend how I tried to support raise to go back to YWAM and I could feel that it made her really uncomfortable. We actually ended up talking about it, and she put into words how fundraising made her sick to her stomach. When I was asking for money to go back to LA, she felt like I low key said that my life, and what I was doing, was more important than hers, so she should help me out financially. That’s what she thought, and that’s how it works.
I’m so influenced by this myself. This week we learned about boundaries and in all honesty (and privacy) I rolled my eyes. I thought they were going to teach us that we had to set boundaries in leadership, that we can’t say yes to everything and you really have to take care of yourself and blah blah blah. In my Danish mind I resisted because it sounded to me like we had to realize that we were oh, so special. If people back home say “no” for the sake of taking care of themselves they’ll probably be thought of as upper class and a little snobbish. As if they thought they were something special, which you are not allowed to be. Our speaker asked me, why I feel guilty when I consider setting boundaries. It took me a while to realize that it makes me anxious, because I don’t want people to think that I’m sensitive and consider myself as fragile. I think I have been equating boundaries with being a sissy. Clearly, these thought are concieved in a mind controlled by Jante’s law.

The law of Jante is hard to explain, but to me it’s such an interesting phenomenon! We don’t really talk about this, it just happens. It’s a way of thinking and getting around each other. And I have to admit – it’s functional. As I read a few articles on this topic, it caught my eye how a lot of people saw the law of Jante as the key to Scandinavian success and happiness. Interesting, right?
My friend explained it to me like this: because you know that you are not to think too much of yourself, you keep your head down and don’t brag even if you have reason to brag. It limits snobbery, which seems to be a good thing. I can definitely see the link , but I wonder if there would be another way to get the same result. Equality doesn’t have to come from no one being able to raise their head and try to excell. Equality could come if we all opened our bible and read what God says in Isaiah 49:16

              “See, I have engraved you in the palm of my hands”

Re-read that! If the God of the Universe has your name written in both of his hands, I’m pretty sure you – confidently – can think you are something special… as well as anyone else. Do you see it? Special and equal. Well, then it’s not special, is it? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that I prefer equality from everyone cheering and championing each other over equality from bowed heads and low self-esteem, because “you are not to think you are anything special” (1st law of Jante).

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