Why Swedes Don’t Talk About Wealth?

Despite being among the wealthiest people in the world, Swedes have a well-earned reputation for modesty. [1]

Their legendary reserve is ingrained into the Swedish language, with some sources estimating that a limited vocabulary of just 126,000 words is adequate for everyday communication. [2]

Swedes don’t talk about wealth because of their deeply entrenched cultural values that proscribe immodest and attention-seeking behavior.

Today, these codes are often referred to as Jantelagen or the Laws of Jante. The attitude extends to all Nordic cultures. 

This article explains the concept of Jantelagen, points out how it influences various aspects of Nordic culture and looks into some criticisms of its impact on society. 

Also, see What Do Swedish People Look Like? to learn more.

Jantelagen: The Reason Swedes Don’t Show Off or Talk About Wealth

Under late-stage capitalism, many societies celebrate wealth and the “heroic” individuals who seemingly conjure it out of thin air.

Conspicuous consumption is increasingly seen as a just reward for applying brilliance and verve to fulfilling the demands of open markets. 

It’s also justified as a driver of further wealth creation. 

While such attitudes are widespread in highly individualistic cultures such as America, they have permeated all but the most remote societies today.

In this context, the Swedish attitude to money is peculiar, and the reluctance of many Swedes to talk about money seems at odds with the times. 

A closer look at aspects of Scandinavian culture helps explain some of these features. 

The Laws of Jante  

The explanation the average Scandinavian usually gives for their reluctance to talk about money is the code of Jante, known in Sweden as Jantelagen. [3] 

These ideas originated from Danish-Norwegian writer Askel Sandemose’s 1933 novel En Flyktning Krysser Sitt (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks). [4]

The book tells the story of the fictional Danish town of Jante, whose inhabitants happily surrender their individuality to the laws of Jante.

According to En Flyktning Krysser Sitt Spor, the ten laws of Jante are:

  1. Do not believe you are an exceptional individual.
  2. Do not assume you are as good as another individual.
  3. Do not consider yourself more intelligent than other people.
  4. Do not think you are better in any way than another person.
  5. Do not assume you are more knowledgeable than another person.
  6. Do not consider yourself more important than another person.
  7. Do not believe you are exceptionally good at anything.
  8. Do not mock another person.
  9. Do not assume another person cares about you.
  10. Do not behave like you can teach other people things.

Taken together, the Jante laws encourage an attitude of humility that places greater value on the well-being of the collective than on individual accomplishment, which may or may not be beneficial for their society.

They explain why Swedes dislike talking about how much money they make or flaunting personal achievements publicly.  

Spending conspicuously is seen as boastful and vulgar

This attitude extends to Scandinavian fashion and design objects, which tend to be functional, blending in rather than seeking to grab attention. 

The Impact of Jantelagen on Nordic Culture 

Historically, the attitudes defined by Jantelagen have contributed to social attitudes across the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, as well as their Nordic neighbors Iceland and Finland. 

They have shaped these societies to the modern day.

Notably, Jantelagen and the idea of collective harmony that it emphasizes, contribute significantly to social attitudes to the state’s role in society.

Their influence means that, at least in the public sphere, individual Swedes don’t see themselves as superior to others by virtue of their wealth.

Such ideas have encouraged Nordic countries to develop welfare states. 

Universally, Nordic governments are characterized by high taxes and social service spending, and their citizens are largely healthy and well-educated.

No wonder the Nordic countries are among the wealthiest and most equal societies in the world today. [5] 

Caveat: Jantelagen Points to Deeper Cultural Factors

Of course, such deep cultural affinities could not have developed only as recently as the 20th century. In all likelihood, they point to deeper tendencies. 

Various studies suggest limited historical feudalism, the Lutheran faith, and modern political organization as factors in the rise of collectivist values among the Nordic people. [6] [7]

Criticisms of Jantelagen

It’s easy to see how the concept of Jantelagen has served the Nordic states well, but it has critics who argue that Nordic ideas of harmony enforce conformity, discourage diversity, and hide recent increases in inequality.

They may even cover up racist ideas and politics in the worst cases.  

Jantelagen Encourages Conformity

Critics argue that Jantelagen works as a form of censorship, enforcing compliance with social norms. [8]

While it encourages greater social cohesion, this comes at the cost of suppressing different voices within the Nordic polity.

With globalization and rising immigration in recent years, the Nordic desire for conformity faces multiple challenges today.

It’s being seduced by international consumer culture and threatened by encounters with genuinely different social norms.

Additionally, younger Nordic citizens, including many Swedes, feel that the ideas of conformity underpinning Jantelagen stifle creativity and marginalize minority voices. [9] [10] 

Hides Increasing Inequality

While Nordic countries are among the most equal in the world, inequality has been rising steadily in countries like Sweden in recent years. [11]

In fact, the rise in inequality in Sweden between 1985 and 2010 was the highest of all OECD countries. [12] 

Many redistributive taxes have been withdrawn. 

Sweden no longer has taxes on property, endowments, or wealth, and rebates have been introduced for high earners. [13]

Sweden subsidizes payments to housemaids, while public money is finding its way to private for-profit schools. 

Not talking about money can temporarily cover up these significant trends. And not speaking about problems will not make them go away.

Provides Cover for Racist Ideas

In the worst cases, the Swedish desire for conformity can provide cover for racist ideas and politics. [14]

By reworking questions of cultural difference into problems of social cohesion, xenophobic tendencies of Nordic culture may seem less abhorrent than race-based explanations for exclusion.

Structurally and in practice, they often work the same way. 

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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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