Sunday, October 22, 2006

Lagom and Jante Law

Boom! Take that, Blogger! Got 'em. It took a week, but I finally got some "Visitors" pictures up. Yes! Oh, the joy of overcoming the great Blogger picture gatekeeper. Here's to Steve, Geoff and Won as well as the Sunukjians and our dinner of Swedish reindeer, potatoes, Aqvavit and desserts like you wouldn't believe. Makes you want to come visit, huh? But that was last week...

While I have many blog entries brewing, while there's an endless amount of Linköping fun facts, stories and experiences to keep this website active for years to come, I've gotta hold off in order to fill you in on a couple important life philosophies critical to understanding Swedes. So step back with me this week for a cultural lesson that may perhaps enlighten future entries.

"Lagom" is loosely translated in English as "just enough." This idea of society's needs and resources, and every person needing and deserving "just enough" to fill their needs is a Viking concept that still lives today, apparent in many areas of Swedish life, but most clearly in the Swedish socio-economic model where everyone has and deserves "just enough" for their needs. This is not a concept found only in history or social science classes because I have spoken with many Swedes very familiar with this and even asking if I'm aware of it. When they ask, I say "Yes, in preparation for my time here, I read about Lagom and also 'Jante Law.'"

The Jante Law
The Swedish Jante Law (Pr. 'Yante' Law) is the strongest social underpinning in the country. Think of how strong the American social ethic of "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps" is to American individualism and life and there you have the equivalent strength of a social protocol found in the Swedish Jante Law. Jante Law can be summarized as "Thou shalt not believe thou art something"--in other words, a great commandment to keep oneself in proper perspective to everyone else. A nationwide calling to humility is another way of looking at it. Socially and economically, one can see how different this is from an American perspective. And as American commercialism and cultural life is only on the increase throughout Sweden, the Jante Law brings about a tension that Swedes are having to address on many levels of society. In the end though, Jante Law is in full effect throughout Sweden serving to create a society that seems to work together and trust each other more than most, from what I've seen so far.

There's your classroom lecture for a little while. Talk amongst yourselves....but make sure it's in Swedish!

"Se du nästa vecka."
See you next week.


Anonymous said...

Sean! I feel like I am learning about "lagom" myself right now! It's great to see you (good pics!) and I look forward to reading all of the blog.

Carly news: I am moving to SF, leaving residential life and entering the corporate world. I will be the Regional Training Manager for BlackRock, an investment company. I will train all the new employees, travel the west coast and oversee the training of the property managers. I will wear a suit each day and no longer supervise anyone! Life is upside down, in every sense - and I love it.

I will have to update you further outside of the workday....

xo - Carly

Skhor said...

Sean! I seriously love these "mini-series lectures" on Swedish culture and your life in Linkoping...I usually look every Monday night, hoping for a new entry! Keep 'em coming!

Anonymous said...

Hi Sean, loved catching up on all your blog entries, and getting a taste for your life in Sweden- from crayfish to simplicity and bicycle riding to your new favorite city- Stockholm. (I had no clue Stockholm was a city of islands! :)) Lagom and Jante Law seem to be rich cultural ideas that the world should embrace. I am glad to hear these philosophies are truly lived in Sweden and are such a part of Swedish culture. Can't wait to read more soon! Love, Mansi

Anonymous said...

My God...

Damn socialists. Don't be fooled with their seemingly benign references to provincial Viking culture...they're as duplicitous as they are inaccurate. Vikings were ruthless plunderes who did anything but live with "just enough."

Say what you want, but "Lagom" sounds like nothing more than an endemic romanticized version of Marx's famous axiom, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

It's the same kind of soul-stealing idea that ensures that no matter how hard work, the government will ensure that you cannot succeed.

God bless the American way.

- KB

Hans Persson said...

Anonymous (last one):

Vikings were ruthless plunderes who did anything but live with "just enough."

Well, yes and no. There definitely were viking raids on various places, but vikings also traveled to quite a few places to trade or work. The prime examples as far as Swedish vikings go is, I think, that many were employed in the guard of the Byzantine emperor (a place they called "Miklagård"). Actually, most Swedish vikings travelled south and east, while the Danes went to France and Britain and the Norwegians to Iceland, Greenland and America.

It's the same kind of soul-stealing idea that ensures that no matter how hard work, the government will ensure that you cannot succeed.

This is your American fear of government running away with you. Government was never mentioned in the original entry, and has nothing to do with "the jante law". This is purely a societal thing.

Being only slightly unfair, you can say that while many Americans will claim that they can do things they really can't, many Swedes won't admit to being able to do things they can. Regardless of in which of these two places you are, you have to figure out what the actual truth is. The difference is that you have to modify what is said in different directions. As a side note, Swedes can find Japanese to be in the same way as Americans find Swedes in this respect...

Anonymous said...

Actually the Jante Law is of Norwegian origin (Aksel Sandemoses book "En flykting korsar sitt spår" from 1933). The concept is not that funny when you live here. Best to add "lagom": lagom jante is best.

Good blog!



Elin said...

Hi! "Se du nasta vecka", sorry but it's "Vi ses nasta vecka!" Love your blog! Now I can show the english what my hometown looks like.

T said...

Nice blog! I really enjoy reading it.

Your describsion of the Lagom was a little too much about society to me. It's true that everything in Sweden is kind of Lagom and so is of course the swedish politic and economy.
Though politicans don't use the word Lagom. Lagom is more commonly used when it comes to how much food you like to have or how warm the water should be when you take a shower. Of course it should be lagom; not too hot and not too cold - just perfect. ;)
The word Lagom can of course be discussed. It's actuelly a useless word since it doesn't really mean anything. It's something in between and something that is different for everybodie's individual desires.

How long should a blog be if you don't want the readers to be bored? - lagom ( =useless answer!).

Keep on studying Swedish Viking culture, language and mysterious words. And keep on blogging!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Gunnar, the jante law is nowadays so out of date that the Swedes even have invented a reversed jante law.

Lagom, on the other hand, is a lovely word that most Swedes use on a daily basis. I would however translate it "just right" rather than "just enough". Lagom can mean that you've gotten just the right ammount of sleep (no headache from oversleeping or double vision from undersleeping), just the right portion size on your restaurant visit (no stomach ache from overeating or lingering hunger from undereating), etc. I've never heard anyone use the word "lagom" in terms of their paychecks or living standards, though. When it comes to those things, I think that we're like most ppl in the western world - never satisfied :-)

Thanks for a great blog, it ended up with my favourites!

/Cissi, Mjölby

Fredrik Persson said...

I'd like to give a brief history of the word "lagom" itself. There's no way to know if this is absolutely *true*, but anyway...

When the vikings were having the "now we've plundered this village, let's throw a big party and eat and drink"-dinner, an enemy skull would be used as the cup for the dinner, filled with the ancient beer called "mjöd". The skull filled with mjöd would go around the party and everyone was supposed to drink from it.

In ancient swedish, a band of vikings, or any group of people, would be called a "lag". This is the exact same word that means "law" or "team" these days. (Yes, confusing, but that's how it is.)

So, the skull was supposed to go around the "lag". The term used for "around" in ancient swedish, in this context, was "om". So, since go is "gå" in swedish, you would say that the skull filled with mjöd would "gå lag om".

The expression to go "lag om", then became the word "lagom". Since each and every partyviking would have to drink an appropriate amount of the mjöd in order for there to be mjöd for everyone, the expression "lagom" came to describe the amount of mjöd each viking should drink, and subsequently an expression for any amount that is not too little, and not too much, but just right.

Really, a very useful word. I don't understand why it doesn't exist in other languages.

Faustina said...

Hi, Sean.
Can't help being a bit anal: Aksel Sandemose was a Danish author that moved to Norway later on, and Jante is the town in Denmark where he grew up. I actually grew up in a place like Jante, not very far away from Linköping. Now I live in Oslo, which is more exotic to a Swede than one would imagine ;-)