There’s a certain bar in Utrecht that gets busier the closer it is to sunrise. It’s not the most savory spot. The lighting is dark in a shady way, and it’s a bit sketchy in that I was generously offered hash within three seconds of walking in. But the bartender (and presumably owner) said that he’s been working there for over thirty years, so there must be something redeeming about this place. When all the other bars close, this one spurs to life.
I was inside with a Danish friend, Marcus, who wears a pencil as an earring. In we went at 3 AM, and out we went smelling like cigarettes at 6 AM. We don’t even smoke.
Marcus would tell me stories about how he grew up between two lakes and the ocean — how grateful he is for his family, his friends back home, and how he’s changed over the years. It’s one of his last weeks here in Utrecht, so naturally he’s in a reflective mood.
But one thing in particular stuck out to me — every time he finished a story, he would say:
“Well, enough about me. I want to hear more about you.”
And that’s when he told me about Jantelov, or the Law of Jante.
Jantelov is tenfold.
- You’re not to think you are anything special.
- You’re not to think you are as good as us.
- You’re not to think you are smarter than us.
- You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than us.
- You’re not to think you know more than us.
- You’re not to think you are more important than us.
- You’re not to think you are good at anything.
- You’re not to laugh at us.
- You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
- You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
[It’s not an actual law, just an idea expressed by the Danish-Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose.]
Jantelov sounds harsh to American audiences, if only because American culture yearns and screams for individuality and gargantuan proportions at every opportunity. From an extremist point of view, it almost seems that Jantelov encourages you tear out the lone tulip in the poppy field.
But that’s not the case here. Ideally, it’s more like a desire for egalitarianism, with everyone being treated equally and held in equal esteem.
And that night, to Marcus, it meant being conscious of how much he was speaking about himself.
“Enough about me; I want to hear more about you.“
I like that statement. It’s a friendly invitation to speak and share more, and can encourage even the quietest conversation partners to express themselves (but only after you’ve opened up first).
Conversations need two people contributing — equal parts listening, and equal parts sharing. Have only one person speak the entire night and it’s just another interview, regardless of how well the other person “listens”.
Crystal Lee Möller writes an interesting blurb about Jantelov here, and how American and Scandinavian work cultures may clash due to differing interpretations on individualism and egalitarianism.