Tennie Videler (31 March 2012)

On my recent trip to Oslo I found out about ‘Jantelov’, a social ‘law which prevents Scandinavian people from boasting. It is worse than that, they feel they should not think about themselves as someone special or talk about their achievements. As an example I was told people lie about exam results if they are above average and in a class you don’t volunteer an answer too frequently to not be seen as a show-off (I figure Hermione Granger would not fit in..) Apparently, the prime minister would tell you if you met him at a party and did not recognise him that ‘he works for central government’ rather than admit that he runs the country.

This interesting cultural difference presented a challenge as I was running a workshop based on Vitae’s Careers in Academia, to give people insight into writing CVs and doing well in job interviews among other aims. CVs wasn’t too much of a problem, as a written down list felt more acceptable than if they would have to talk about their achievements. We explored whether the idea of giving evidence (using the STAR method: explaining the situation, the task you took on, your approach and the result) would be a way round this, which they liked, but only in a way ‘so that people can draw their own conclusions’….

It must be really hard for Scandinavians to thrive in the States for example.  Do you internationally mobile people have similar examples or contradictory experiences?


Sarah Davies
This is really interesting, Tennie. I've heard of this before, but it's particularly relevant to me right now as I'm going to be moving to Denmark in the autumn. I have to say I'm quite looking forward to a more reserved, self-effacing culture after being in the States - where it feels to me that there's a lot of showboating. Having said that, the Danes that I know here seem to cope okay...

C T Nordgård
I'm a brit who has been happily doing science in Norway for a good few years now.  There's no doubt in my mind that my Norwegian colleagues are much less inclined to self promotion than the 'standards' that seem to be presented from other scientific career sources, particularly those from the States.

From my experience (relating to 'janteloven') there is a fine line between stating 'facts' about what you can do, which is not a problem, and tipping over into thinking you are better/more important than someone else, which doesn't come v. naturally to most people.  Of course in competetive situations like job searches being 'better' is somewhat central and I suspect this is where the challenge really lies - how can someone who feels uncomfortable presenting themselves as 'the best' compete with people who are very comfortable with their own self promotion in an environment when self promotion is expected?

There is of course a flip side to this - when people genuinely don't go in for thinking they are 'better' or 'more important' you generate v. good conditions for open dialogue between the ranks,  and there is less tendency to treat junior employees as 'slaves'..........

Personally, I've never come up against any problems.  I'm not someone who is naturally given to self promotion so i that sense I fit right in, but I have certainly never felt any pressure to 'down grade' myself.

For example we'd just moved and I went to 'parents coffee' at the kids new kindergarten, one of the other mums asked me what I did and I told her I was a scientist at X university, and as the conversation continued it came up that I have a PhD etc. etc.  No biggie.  It's simply not an issue - it would however be a BIG issue if I was to think/act like I was better than her because I have aPhD and she doesn't.

Achievements are fine - bragging is out, and I'm very happy with that

Sandrine Berges
It does seem like it might be a restful sort of environment. This attitude is one that's often attributed to women, i.e. we're taught to some extent that self-promotion is rude and this is reflected in things like cv and job interviews. I wonder if there is a diiference in Norway in the way Janteloven is observed by men and women?

Blanka Sengerová
Interesting, I have never heard about this. But I can imagine that compared to working in the States (or even the UK at times, with certain types of bosses) it might be quite a nice environment to be in.

You ask if Scandinavians being interviewed in the States might struggle to sell themselves, but wonder whether it might work the other way and whether Americans being interviewed for jobs in Scandinavia might be regarded as show-offs and difficult to work with if they are too boastful about their achievements and the interviewer is not aware of the difference in attitudes in the two parts of the world?

Jonathan Branney
I would say this is also a feature of Scottish culture, although perhaps not quite as pronounced.  Where I'm from in Scotland you are very quickly put in your place if you are seen to be bragging in any way. No one likes a brag (not where I'm from anyway!) however while I agree with CT, the negative side can be that people in this type of environment can be over conscious about even discussing their achievements within context for fear of misinterpretation as one-upmanship. Balance is required, but maybe not easy to achieve. Anyway, that's what I think and I'm great.