A term that is often used to describe Nordic culture is the so-called Law of Jante:
Generally used colloquially in Denmark and the rest of the Nordic countries as a sociological term to negatively describe a condescending attitude towards individuality and success, the term refers to a mentality that de-emphasises individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while discouraging those who stand out as achievers.
There are ten rules in the law as defined by Sandemose, all expressive of variations on a single theme and usually referred to as a homogeneous unit: You are not to think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us.
The ten rules state:
- You’re not to think you are anything special.
- You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
- You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
- You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
- You’re not to think you know more than we do.
- You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
- 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.
Although there are differences, I tend to think Scottish culture can be similar to this — people tend not to brag about their own achievements (perhaps even to the point of self-deprecation), and they tend to strive to fit in. The Scottish cringe is at least partly a consequence of this, because it is often the result of people standing out by being too Scottish compared to the consensus level. Perhaps the hatred many people feel towards Alex Salmond can also best be explained as a consequence of the Scottish Law of Jante.
However, in the Scottish version there has historically been an outlet for people who wanted to pursue their dreams, namely becoming a lad o pairts (I’ve seen it defined as “the young boy from humble origins who demonstrates academic talent and is able to achieve success, often in London or in the colonies, owing to the historically superior Scottish educational system”).
Of course some Scandinavians have also “escaped” to other countries — for instance, the Norwegian playwright Ibsen was absent from Norway for 27 years, and the Danish poet Henrik Nordbrandt has spent most of his adult life in Greece and Turkey.
However, one of the consequences of the British Union is that it has always been extremely easy for anybody talented to have a career to London — in many cases probably easier that achieving the same in Scotland.
Of course, in today’s globalised world talented people from everywhere flock to London, New York and other global hotspots, and indeed talented Scandinavians seem to emigrate much more than they used to.
The Scottish lads o pairts therefore don’t depend on the UK any more, and it would probably be much better for the Scottish economy if it was easier to have a successful career without having to leave Scotland.
Update (15/01): See also Gerry Hassan’s article about the Scottish Tut.