Thursday, October 1, 2009


I learned a new word this week: tilbakemelding. It means “feedback”. Feedback is something I’ve been exposed to for many years, from having a supervisor red-line a research thesis to receiving criticism on my teaching style*. I roll with it, because I truly believe that criticism makes you better**.

I, like many other lecturers, use feedback as a teaching tool. I have recently been tasked with preparing a group of students for an upcoming international competition conducted in English, and I decided to use a 'trial by fire' method to whip them into shape as I didn't have much time.

I made them each stand up and give a presentation about whatever struck my fancy, and then I gave them feedback on it – I pointed out the good and the bad. But to help them gel as a team, I also asked the students to give feedback to each other. I’ve used this technique before when teaching in the US and the UK with great success. I should’ve known better in Norway.

Student 1 stands up and gives an adequate presentation. After giving him some pointers, I opened up the floor to the other students. No one budged***. So I gently nudged another student to offer some thoughts. This is how the conversation went:

Me: “Student 2, how did you think that presentation went?"
Student 2: “It was okay.”
Me: “Could you expand on that? What did you like?”
Student 2: “I like that he spoke so slowly. It made it easy to follow.”
Me: “Great! And were there any areas for improvement?”
Student 2: “Yeah, I thought he spoke too slowly. It made it hard to follow.”

And herein lies the problem with asking a Norwegian to give feedback. It’s not that they don’t have any constructive thoughts to offer, but it is very culturally uncomfortable to be seen to criticize another person. This means that there is rarely a harsh word said, but, likewise, there is rarely strong praise given.

After one of my very first lectures in Norway, one Norsk gentlemen approached me and said, “Thank you for the class. It was okay.” I was devastated. “Okay” in my book means barely adequate or could have been (markedly) better. I tried to take it on the chin and wandered back to my office feeling a bit dejected.

A few months later after another lecture, the scenario repeated itself. But this time, after receiving the ‘okay stamp of mediocrity', I decided to push it. Again, I want to do the best job I can for my students, so if there was an issue, I wanted to know about it so I could address it.

“You say you feel it was okay. What could I have done to make it better?” I asked. He looked at me, puzzled. He then explained to me that, when a Norwegian says something is ‘okay’, that’s likely the American equivalent of doing a handstand. Very understated, these Norwegians. He went on to tell me that to get told something is ‘okay’ may well be one of the nicest compliments to get from a Norwegian. This did not compute for me.

And then I discovered janteloven (Jante Law). Janteloven is a set of loose guidelines dictating proper behavior in Norwegian**** culture. According to Wikipedia, janteloven is made of up ten points:
  1. Don't think that you are special.
  2. Don't think that you are of the same standing as us.
  3. Don't think that you are smarter than us.
  4. Don't fancy yourself as being better than us.
  5. Don't think that you know more than us.
  6. Don't think that you are more important than us.
  7. Don't think that you are good at anything.
  8. Don't laugh at us.
  9. Don't think that anyone of us cares about you.
  10. Don't think that you can teach us anything.

If that isn’t a testament to an ‘us and them’ culture, I just don’t know what is. I’m not saying it’s bad (or good), just different. I was raised in a way that was almost completely opposite to these teachings, hence why I probably have little cultural clashes about things like tilbakemelding. It also explains why the praise is muted and the criticism softened.

I can’t totally get on board with janteloven, I must say. I think there’s value in humility, but I also think there’s equal value in self-confidence and knowing your abilities. I would rather see balance than extremes.
* These ‘criticisms’ are usually masked as ‘teaching evaluations’, but students never say the nice things. It’s only the angry ones who seem to take the time to fill them out.
** That’s kind of a lie. I think criticism with the right intent makes you better. Just slagging someone off for no reason is not productive and it just makes you look like a meanie.
*** What this actually means is that everyone suddenly became very interested in a tiny speck on their desk and stared intently at it. People, please don’t think that by not making eye contact with me that I can’t see you. I know you don’t want to be called on. Which is exactly why I will call on you first.
**** And Danish, Finnish, and Swedish culture as well.


  1. Mybe I should point out that Janteloven was somewhat an exaggregation of small town attitudes when it was 1933.

    Norway has gotten a lot looser and relaxed in the last 75 years:)

    Still, it does speak to something in us still. A recognition of something we try to rise above, and sometimes fail to.

    It is to us what the "ugly american" stereotype is the the USA, I think.

  2. You are right, very right. Especially the fact - to my very astonishment - that the Jante Law is valid all over Scandinavia. I thought it was very norwegian.

    One of my students and I were reading in class an article on why the Danes were the happiest people on earth and the author mentionned the Jante Law as something that protects the people from unhappiness. Dixit the article : "[the law leads to the fact that for example]nobody would bring their kids to school in a Jaguar". The conclusions from the article are that these behaviours are leading to less jealousy and envy, less competition, less conflicts and more social cohesion. Make no wave, don't disturb anyone and you will live happy. It was hard for me to believe but the facts are there : the Danes are considering themselves as the happiest people of the world.

    Now initially the Jante Law was put in writing by the novelist Aksel Sandemose (norsk-dansk)to describe what he thought were the rules in his village in Jutland, Denmark. I have seen these little villages and now after giving it a little thought, I have no doubt the Jante Law is ruling in Denmark.

    What was for me even more interesting was my student reaction. He could not believe it as for him the Danes are too sarcastic and have a too dark sens of humour. It is socially accepted there to make fun of others and themselves... Could it be extreme here in Norway then? I don't know.

    I think there is a lot to be said on the Jante Law both positive and negative so thank you for writing about it. I think it really puzzles us foreigners so it is even more important to think about it.

    At the end of the day, I agree with you when you say you will never really be able get on board with it.

  3. I was raised in the upper midwest in a community with a predominantly Norwegian heritage. This posting helps me connect the pieces of my upbringing even more. My family has a similar belief system to the Jante law. Sometimes humility can slowly turn into self-loathing. I completely agree with you- extremes are best to be avoided.

    P.S.I really enjoy your blog. I'm preparing to move to Norway soon and your writing has been very insightful and helpful (definitely more than "okay")

  4. I found your thoughts on how Norwegians do not criticize or compliment each other a little interesting. I have lived in Norway for two years and attended videregående skole. I can understand the lack of enthusiasm in your students(after coming from a very small school in the US, especially!), but I feel like compliments and criticism were given. Sometimes I could see that in front of a teacher, the students would give their peers additional compliments, but outside of the classroom, there was an even balance of criticism and compliments. Honesty is something that I have always associated with Norwegian culture(especially Northern Norwegian!), and for some this was obvious, but for the majority, I never actually thought of it as a cultural difference from the US.

    I hadn't heard of Janteloven before, but that was certainly and interesting perspective. I could see how that can fit into Norwegian culture where everyone is equal. The idea of having advanced classes for above average students, for example, shocks Norwegians. You are so right in saying that these things are just different though, not bad.

  5. Things have changed during the past 20 years. I remember when I was a teenager the 'Janteloven' was particularly dominant (yes, I do come from a small village).

    It can actually dominate the conversation tempo as well - as one can be concerned about being labelled a 'bragger' if one speaks about oneself too much.

    After spending some years in South Africa where people talk a lot about everything and nothing - I no longer give Janteloven a second thought. I'll always try to say something in a positive light but I don't feel restricted by any social norms.

    Neither do I find it to be as culturally dominant as it was in the 80's. Youngsters seem a lot freer to stand out now than they did back then. Just look at how youngsters blog about themselves with videoklipps etc.

    Not to say that Janteloven is not a part of Norwegian culture still. I just don't find it as dominant as it used to be.

  6. Thanks to everyone for the comments - I'm happy to read such interesting thoughts on the subject of janteloven.

    My mention of janteloven was not to indicate that all Norwegians abide by this. As I mentioned in the post, I ascribe more to balance than extremes. No one person or country or culture is any one thing.

    However, I do think that in order to understand a culture it is important to understand the history and tradition that serve as a foundation, and I think janteloven goes some way to explain a little more about the value of humility in Norwegian society.

    As a culture becomes more distanced from their history, rather through time or through major events, those initial foundations become less and less applicable, but I do think the spirit remains.

    The good side of janteloven from my perspective is a firm belief that everyone is equal, and that is the part I think lives on most strongly in today's Norwegian people. But I don't think the other side of the message can be ignored if one seeks to fully understand the Norwegian perspective.

    Perhaps one day I will write about the antithesis of janteloven, which is how I was raised in small-town Texas. Our version of Jante Law was almost the exact opposite. I like to think of it as jante-y'all. ;-)

  7. The Janteloven has definitely evolved in meaning over the years. I asked my Norwegian boyfriend what it was (already knowing) and he simply stated it is an unwritten rule that teaches humility. The basic thought, "I am not better than anyone else" is maintained.

    Growing up in the USA as a typical "over achiever" enrolled in all the honors and AP classes, I can not fully understand the law. A competitive American, I wonder why Norwegians even attempt to perform in any situation to the best of their ability, when they are told they are not good at anything. Its a very interesting concept to consider, but I agree it is also very important to understand when living in Norway. As an American, I don't want to strive to be equal, I want to constantly strive for more and to be better.

  8. I have experiences similar issues with Norwegians, and whilst Jantelov may not be a strong as it once was its still there.

    I recently went along to the parents meeting for my wife's 14 year old. During the evening one of the parents started complaining that the teacher could be too sarcastic when one of the pupils got an answer wrong, and that this particularly affected the girls, as the boys would follow the teachers lead. When I spoke to son about this I got the impression that the teacher’s feedback was very mild, but it seems that the delicate little flowers can't take any criticism.

    In my work I’ve found that the corollary to Jantelov is that self criticism is easier to practice. Unlike in the UK or US people seem to be more open to seeing their own flaws and faults, so you could try opening the session by asking the presenting student to self reflect prior to asking the others to join in. The other trick is to be more specific, ask against a specific element of the presentation, and try and keep away from the personal, and you’ll get better feedback. The other thing is to also reframe the question, so that rather than it focusing on the presenting student you focus on what the others took away from the presentation. “What did you learn from that?” type questions. Once you get through this barrier you’ll then have to deal with the bluntness, they won’t pull any punches once they get into the flow of things.

  9. Thanks for the thoughts, Max! It would appear we broke through the 'feedback barrier' this week in class. When I first met the class, I was concerned no one would share constructive criticism, but it now appears that they are well into the game. I actually had to rephrase and soften some of their comments to each other yesterday. Be careful what you wish for!

  10. Remember that Janteloven was written not as a law as such, but as a poem by the poet Axel Sandemose. But he sort of nailed it didnt he?

    lgski46: About Northern Norway. People there are a bit more straight from the heart, no beating about the bush. Kind of latin temperament! They say what the mean!

    People are different.

    As for the word 'okey'. Well if a young person said it I would understand it as you JT, especially if he spoke in Norwegian. Cause young people are much more likely to use words (in norwegian) as "fett", "kjempekult", "dritbra", "det var bare såååå herlig". I also dont know if this person spoke to you in English or Norwegian. If he spoke in English maybe he didnt know what appropirate English word to use. And he thought that 'okey' would do it?

    I've lived in both Stavanger and Oslo (and I'm 44) and my experience is that people use much stronger words if they are happy of satisfied with something. Both in English and Norwegian.

    You have a GREAT blog by the way. I absolutely really enjoy it!!!

    Girl in Oslo :-)

  11. Great post and very interesting and considerate discussion.


  12. 1. Se muligheter - see possibilities

    2. Skap vinnere - create winners

    3. Vær modig - be courageous

    4. Gi ros - give praise

    5. Tenk positivt - think positive

    6. Ta ansvar - take responsibilty

    7. Se fremover - look forward

    8. Sats på utdanning og forskning - go for education and research

    9. Motarbeid misunnelse og latskap - work against envy and laziness

    10. Begynn i dag - start today

  13. This is the Viking Law. ;)

  14. Interesting post. While I agree that these laws as enunciated here seem a bit extreme (especially the principle that no one cares about you), the overall tenet underpinning Janteloven is humility which I think is of great cultural value and one that you see positively manifested in Norwegian egaliatrianism.

    I'm sure there can be some negative aspects of this, just as the culture of praise and boosting ones 'self-esteem' in the US can easily degenerate into narcicism and egotism.

    Thanks for posting.