Jantelagen: Why Swedes won’t talk about wealth
The Nordic Way
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A high income is a badge of success in many countries, but in Sweden a deep-rooted cultural code called Jantelagen stops many from talking about it.
By Maddy Savage
9th October 2019
In Stockholm’s richest inner-city neighbourhood, Östermalm, private yachts and floating cocktail bars hug the marina. The adjacent tree-lined boulevard, Strandvägen, boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the Swedish capital, as well as exclusive boutiques and independent restaurants. Nearby, ornate 18th Century buildings house luxurious office spaces and private member’s bars.
The area is packed with people in designer sunglasses soaking up the autumn sunshine. But finding someone who’s comfortable talking about their wealth is almost impossible.
I’m not going to tell you how much I make because I don’t know why I should – Robert Ingemarsson
“I’m not going to tell you how much I make because I don’t know why I should,” says 30-year-old Robert Ingemarsson, who has a senior job in marketing. Asked what he does with his money, he says simply: “I spend it on stocks. I like investing”.
Victor Hesse, 24, who’s out shopping, says he’s about to embark on an international talent programme for a major Swedish brand. But when asked about his salary, he says: “That’s classified”.
Standard narratives about Sweden tend to highlight its social democracy, high taxes and low income inequality by global standards. But while this stereotype is rooted in facts, the gap between the rich and the poor has been steadily widening since the 1990s. The top 20% of the population now earn four times as much as the bottom 20%.
Why Swedes won’t talk about wealth
Video by Maddy Savage and Benoît Derrier.
A high income is a badge of success in many countries, but Swedes have a deep-rooted aversion to talking about their cash. Our repeated efforts to arrange interviews with young, wealthy Swedes proved tricky; off-the-record, people were happy to talk about large second homes, family yachts, sports cars or champagne sprees in nightclubs, but getting them to formalise their comments was a struggle.
“I have a feeling that it will come across as bragging, which unfortunately I don’t feel comfortable with,” read one text message that seemed representative of the sentiment felt by many. Others agreed to be interviewed and then became “too busy” or simply ghosted us.
But why is this? While discussing your wealth feels perfectly appropriate in some parts of the world, why does it seem like nobody in Stockholm is proud of being rich?
The concept of Jantelagen
Lola Akinmade Åkerström, an author on Swedish culture who’s been living in Stockholm for more than a decade, says talking about money is “a very uncomfortable subject” in Sweden. She argues that boasting about wealth – or even discussing a moderate salary with a stranger – is such a taboo that many Swedes would actually feel “more comfortable talking about sex and bodily functions”.
It is a view shared by Stina Dahlgren, a 28-year-old Swedish journalist who spent several years living in the US. “Over in the States, when you say that you’re earning a lot of money, people are cheering for you and they say: ‘good for you, good work’. But over here in Sweden, if you say that you have a good salary… people think you’re weird,” she says. “You don’t ask about salaries, you don’t ask about money.”
Many Swedes refuse to discuss finances with strangers and would feel more comfortable talking about sex, as observed by author Lola Akinmade Åkerström (Credit: Benoit Derrier)
Many cultural commentators agree that a large part of the taboo can be explained by a deep-rooted Nordic code called Jantelagen, which promotes the idea of never thinking you are better than anyone else and calling out those who break this norm.
“Jantelagen is an unspoken societal rule that exists here in Sweden and a lot of the Nordics,” explains Akinmade Åkerström, who explores the topic in her book Lagom: The Swedish Secret of Living Well. “It’s about not being too flashy, not bragging unnecessarily, and it’s a way of kind of keeping everybody – for the most part – equal… to remove sources of stress within group settings.”
Jantelagen… is about not being too flashy, not bragging unnecessarily, and it’s a way of kind of keeping everybody – for the most part – equal – Lola Akinmade Äkerström
Jantelagen – which translates to The Law of Jante in English – takes its name from a rule-abiding town called Jante which featured in a fictional book by Norwegian-Danish author Aksel Sandemose in 1933. But Dr Stephen Trotter, a Scottish-Norwegian academic who wrote about the concept while he was working at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, says its sentiment has existed in the Nordics – especially in rural areas – for centuries.
“Jantelagen is a mechanism for social control,” he argues. “It’s not just about wealth, it’s about not pretending to know more than you do or acting above your station.”
As a shorthand for celebrating modesty and humbleness, Jantelagen is not dissimilar to tall poppy syndrome, a popular term in Australia and New Zealand that embraces putting down those who are showy about their wealth or status. In Scotland people talk of the ‘crab mentality’ – a way of thinking that nods to a crab trying to escape from a bucket, yet being pulled back by its fellow hostages. “You could say that Scandinavia just found a buzzword that fits and sums it up better than anyone else,” says Trotter.
Yet he also points out that the way Jantelagen plays out in Sweden and other Nordic societies is linked to specific cultural norms in those nations.
Embedded deeply in Nordic culture, Jantelagen is an unspoken rule that aims to keep everybody seemingly equal and reduce social tensions (Credit: Benoit Derrier)
“You can chat about your cabin in the woods and getting underfloor heating and a patio. People [are] not surprised by that – that is a common idea in the Nordics and a lot of people have a second home here,” he argues. “But to say you’d spent the same money on two Lamborghinis – you would probably get a bit laughed at!”
Akinmade Äkerstöm argues that while Sweden has fought hard to maintain a global image as a classless social democracy, many Swedes still surround themselves with people in similar income brackets. This, she says, means that the rules of Jantelagen can therefore shift depending on the company; bragging is more acceptable among those with similar backgrounds.
“Behind closed doors with others of the same socio-economic status, they [richer people] are more comfortable. They can talk about their summer homes or their cars with everybody on the same level.”
Back in Östermalm, Andreas Kensen, 33, who doesn’t live in the area but is spending the afternoon visiting its smart boutiques, agrees that Jantelagenis contextual. “I would definitely tell my friends that we’ve been out travelling or, you know, show it off on Instagram or Facebook. But it’s nothing I would tell a stranger I just met,” he explains.
A vocal backlash
However, growing numbers of young, successful Swedes are starting to criticise Jantelagen, and calling for a more vocal conversation about wealth and success.
These include Nicole Falciani, 22, who began earning money from blogging as a teenager and is now a major influencer, with 354,000 followers on Instagram. At a glamorous wedding-themed jewellery shoot at an out-of-town allotment cafe, she doesn’t bat an eyelid when asked to tell us her typical fee: around $20,000 per campaign. It’s money she mostly spends on designer bags and travel, having bought a city centre apartment at the age of 20.
Andreas Kensen says Jantelagen is contextual: you might show off a trip you've taken on social media, you just wouldn't brag to a stranger (Credit: Benoit Derrier)
“I would love it if Jantelagen would disappear, because I think that would be so much better for everyone living here… Our society would be much more open if we could talk about money,” she argues. “It’s quite a nice thought that everyone should be equal and that we are all the same. But it doesn’t work, because if you’re working harder than anyone else, then you should be proud of it.”
Our society would be much more open if we could talk about money – Nicole Falciani
Cornelius Cappelen, an associate professor in comparative politics at the University of Bergen in Norway, believes the rise of social media is behind the youth backlash against Jantelagen. He argues that blogging and video-blogging in particular support the kind of “rampant individualism” that promotes standing out from the crowd, which has, until recently, been far less prevalent in Nordic countries than other western nations, particularly the US.
“More and more people use the term [Jantelagen] as an abuse – especially many young people explicitly claim that they hate the mentality,” he argues.
Young people like Nicole Falciani who turn to social media for success see Jantelagen as a barrier preventing the recognition of hard work (Credit: Benoit Derrier)
Akinmade Åkerström also believes that social media has had a major impact. Since bragging has become commonplace on Facebook and Instagram, Swedes whose personal achievements stand out have started to feel more comfortable making their success public, she argues.
“There are very skilled, talented people that have been suppressed by Jantelagen, but then they’ve seen mediocre people bragging (online) with confidence.”
“I think Jantelagen is going to slowly fade out because those people that have been repressed will start standing up and saying, ‘you know, I’m good at this!’… And social media also connects you to a wider audience that isn’t familiar with Jantelagen.”
The author believes that Jantelagen is also becoming less popular due to a rise in immigration. In Sweden, the most diverse of the Nordic nations, around 25% of people were born abroad or have two foreign parents. “What other cultures are bringing in is celebrating your success, celebrating talented people, celebrating skills,” she says.
It’s a theory welcomed by Nicole Falciani, who was born and raised in Sweden but has two Italian parents. She says that she sometimes found it tricky to work out which of the topics that she discussed at home or with relatives in Italy were socially acceptable to talk about in Swedish society.
With increased immigration and influx of foreign cultures, the Nordic concept of Jantelagen seems to be disappearing but to what extent remains to be seen (Credit: Benoit Derrier)
“I think it will get better, because we’re getting more European, we have more foreigners living in Sweden taking their culture here. And we have a lot of American TV programmes and they don’t have Jantelagen at all,” she says. However, she doubts the concept will disappear completely because it is “so rooted in Swedish culture or in Scandinavian culture”.
Cornelius Cappelen, the associate professor, says he’s also uncertain about the concept’s potential to disappear.
“Will it stick around it the future? Well, my guess is as good as yours. But I will say this: I hope the nice aspect of it – the modesty code of not sticking one’s neck out – will continue to exist and I hope that the negative aspect of it – ‘cutting people down to size’ – will wither away.”
Meanwhile some immigrants to Sweden say they have embraced Jantelagen, including 35-year-old Natalia Irribara, who moved to Stockholm from Chile three years ago.
“I think in Chile we have a really narcissistic society where accomplishments are really important – like academic qualifications, sport, being pretty… the car, the school, the house,” she says. “[Here] we have a model as a neighbour, but they never talk about ‘oh, I was in this magazine’. Another neighbour is a photographer who accomplished great things, but never talks about it.”
“For me humbleness is really important, and the thing I like in Sweden is that with Jantelagen it’s not that important, those material things.”
Additional research by Emelie Svensson.
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