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Standing out and the Law of Jante

Facebook has just reminded me of this piece I wrote 4 years ago on my personal account, before I had a blog. I still like it, so I'm copying it here.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the capacity to stand out. To let yourself be seen. To be confident in public. To trust you have something to offer.

This is familiar territory for me, relational ground I traipse over and around every now and again.

With people I know well, as many of you will know, I can be loud (especially the laugh) and outgoing; but in a group, and especially with folk I don’t know very well, I tend to be quiet, withdrawn; an observer. Though I think I’m fairly balanced in judging things I do well, and things I don’t, that shows up in a quiet confidence that I keep to myself. I don’t like to draw attention to myself. I cringe if I find myself in the limelight.

I believe there’s a component in the reticent, tentative way I approach the world that’s innate – an introverted temperament, let’s say. I’m shy, and take a relatively long time to ‘warm up’ with people. I find crowds overwhelming, and generally I avoid parties.

Then there’s an element that I think is related to my upbringing and my early life – my own little crop of neuroses that shape my personality: a tendency to over-analyse everything, and not want to express an opinion until I’ve reached a definitive conclusion (=never). A wish to feel in control of situations. An inclination to be self-sufficient. I’m working on loosening some of these things up a little.

Those are both groups of characteristics about me, and how I operate in the world. And then there’s the world itself - something to do with the culture I grew up in, the environment in which those personal characteristics were shaped.

A couple of years ago a Scandinavian friend introduced me to the Law of Jante: a set of ‘commandments’ set out in an early 20th century Danish-Norwegian novel, that give voice to a set of unspoken social rules supposedly prevalent in Nordic countries. Jante’s Law says:

1. You shall not believe that you’re someone.

2. You shall not believe you’re as good as us.

3. You shall not believe you’re cleverer than us.

4. You shall not imagine you’re better than us.

5. You shall not believe you know more than us.

6. You shall not believe you’re more important than us.

7. You shall not believe you’re good at anything.

8. You shall not laugh at us. 9. You shall not believe anyone cares about you.

10. You shall not believe you can teach us anything.

Wow, I thought; that’s it. That’s a really explicit description of the model I have in my head for the acceptable way to be with other people. And like many of these unspoken rules that we absorb as children from the environment around us, until I saw it in black and while, I didn’t even know I thought it.

I guess there are positive aspects to a social code like this: it promotes an egalitarian ethic, discourages feelings of superiority.

But the way it does it – an implicit message that ‘there’s nothing special or valuable about you whatsoever’ - shames the individual out of any feeling of personal worth, and undermines the foundations of self-esteem. This seems to me unnecessarily cruel and destructive.

In theory, once you’re aware of unconscious beliefs like these, you can do something to subvert them. I have to say, though, they’re proving remarkably tough to shift. Even though I’m a grown woman. Even though I know that sometimes I have something valuable to offer. Even though I’m blessed to have many people in my life who genuinely want to hear from me, and want me to be able to be more relaxed, and more open with them.

One of the ways I’ve been challenging this pattern over the last 10 months is by occasionally posting pieces on Facebook that are more personal, more revealing, than is usually my habit. Pieces like this, where I share a bit of what goes on behind the laughter and – I hope – invite you to wonder with me about some of the weirdness of being a human.

So I’m curious what you think about the Law of Jante: does this ring any bells for you? Or conversely, did you grow up in an environment that encourages confidence, and speaking out? Or other values entirely? I’d love to hear from you.

Originally posted 5 March 2017


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