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Stifling Penchant : Conformity--a Must in Scandinavia

First of two articles. Next: An end to prosperous tranquillity.

December 14, 1988|TYLER MARSHALL | Times Staff Writer

COPENHAGEN — A British consultant recalled recently how Swedish delegates to an international economic conference that she attended in the 1950s were quickly dubbed "the quiet men" by other participants.

"They arrived punctually, were always very polite and well-dressed but stuck together and rarely opened their mouths," said the consultant, Jean Phillips-Martinsson, who advises businesses on cultural stereotypes. "That was 30 years ago, and nothing has changed since."

Learning to stick together and blend with the crowd comes with mother's milk for those born in the Scandinavian north.

In a region where a tough, agrarian people once saw communal harmony as the key to survival, conformity is a religion.

The 'Jante Law'

The Norwegian writer Aksel Sandemose called it the "Jante law"--an unwritten, unspoken, but all-pervasive Scandinavian social imperative that no one must dare excel, no one must be allowed to fall behind, all should seek the middle ground.

Although he wrote more than half a century ago, Sandemose's portrait of a small Danish town he disguised with the name "Jante" helps explain the stifling penchant for communal harmony and conformity that still dictates the shape of life in the Scandinavian nations of Sweden, Norway and Denmark--three of the world's most prosperous countries.

With a population of only 18 million--roughly that of greater New York City--strewn over an area the size of all Central Europe, the Scandinavian countries retain the aura of small communities where everyone knows everyone.

Amid the gleaming stainless steel, polished glass and unlittered streets, few stand out in the scrubbed, blond, Protestant citizenry.

Here, consensus and compromise are a way of life.

There are few incentives to excel.

In Norwegian schools, grades no longer exist for preteen students, while the message in classrooms throughout the region--nurtured as much by the absence of reward and the example of life around them as by any overt policy--is that to be average is to be safe.

"We don't admire big stars or heroes very much," noted Jacob Vedel-Petersen, director of the Institute for Social Science Research in Copenhagen. "The man in the street is our hero."

Even for those with power, that seems to be the role model.

Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson carries his own bags, lives in a rented apartment and, by law, opens his mail to any citizen interested enough to drop by and read it.

Successful businessmen and the few genuinely privileged Scandinavians tend to live unobtrusively. Flamboyance is discouraged.

A Copenhagen resident recalled once helping up a lone, nondescript woman who had fallen in the snow only to stare into the face of Denmark's reigning monarch, Queen Margrethe II.

Even death is no escape from Nordic conformity, as one hapless Swedish widower discovered when he tried to fulfill his wife's wish by placing at the head of her grave a roughly hewn stone embedded with a natural cross she had found on a country walk.

In a poignant scene from Swedish film maker Jan Troell's powerful documentary of modern Sweden, "Land of Dreams," the widower pleads for understanding but learns that in the cause of what is called "good grave culture," all stones must be correctly proportioned.

"The stone does not comply with the rules, which allow no exception," declares the responsible bureaucrat. "Proportion is important."

Seed for New Deal

In the 1930s, the strength of this communal loyalty and inbred egalitarianism helped spawn the world's most comprehensive welfare states that became the seeds for other experiments, including Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

Former socialist Chancellors Willy Brandt of West Germany and Bruno Kreisky of Austria returned home from World War II exile in Scandinavia with ideas eventually transplanted to their own countries.

But no welfare state has reached the refinement of those in the Nordic region, where a bewildering array of benefits has distributed wealth with a remarkably even hand, eliminated deprivation and enabled the weak to keep up.

Denmark Rated First

A recently published University of Pennsylvania survey that rated the social progress of 124 countries ranked Denmark first, Sweden fifth and Norway seventh. (The United States was listed 27th.)

Life expectancy is higher, infant mortality lower, literacy more widespread and average household incomes greater than anywhere else in the West.

A hotel doorman in Sweden may earn half the salary of a university professor, but both probably have at least a modest country house and a boat to go with it.

To an outsider, state benefits seem almost limitless.

The Norwegian government finally drew the line recently when it debated, but eventually rejected, financing winter Mediterranean holidays for every citizen living in the country's northernmost counties, an area already reliant on huge government subsidies.

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