Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Understanding Cultural Differences: Janteloven and Social Conformity in Norway

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Understanding Cultural Differences: Janteloven and Social Conformity in Norway

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE persistent themes in general semantics literature is tolerance of cultural diversity. Quotes from a recent article in this journal illustrate this point: "Throughout our history, we have reacted too often to diversity with fear and defensive actions....Korzybski, among others, pointed out that no two things in "reality" are identical....There is a personal element in our abstracting process. Our maps of the world are influenced by limitations of...our backgrounds and upbringing....We must fight the tendency to believe that our map is the only map...." (1)

The classic general semantics literature warns of the difficulty of abstracting. In this regard, many of the readers of this journal will be familiar with Hayakawa's cautionary fable. (2) Some will recall Wendell Johnson remarking to his general semantics classes at the University of Iowa that a football team could not run down the field, because only individuals, not groups, had the capability to physically run. Johnson, in People in Quandaries, identified general semantics as a systematic formulation of the process of abstracting which we can describe as: 1. a process of leaving out details; 2. a process that proceeds from "lower" to "higher" levels; a process that is 3. potentially continuous, 4. personal, 5. projective, 6. self-reflexive, 7. multiordinal, 8. self-corrective, and 9. productive of results that can be communicated. (3)

In the related field of linguistic semantics, there are added cautions regarding the use of abstractions expressed in a foreign language. Advocates of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis hold that, to a certain extent, each of us is a prisoner of the structures of our native language and thus particular care should be taken in translating one language to another. (4)

Despite all of these cautions, the authors find themselves in professional and personal situations which encourage development and use of an abstract concept which might explain the differences between Norwegians on the one hand and British and Americans on the other. The purpose of this article, then, is to argue that in limited circumstances use of an abstract concept to convey widely shared values does aid communication. Further, we argue that "Janteloven" is an apt descriptor of widely shared attitudes in Norway.

The similarities between Norwegians and most Americans and English persons are more immediately apparent than the differences: physical appearance and dress is quite similar.

Yes, a typical group of New Yorkers or Londoners would be more racially diverse than a group of Oslo residents, but Oslo is now attracting a trickle of migrants and students from the third world. The residents of these three countries enjoy a high and comparable standard of living. All three use English as a first or second language. All are members of NATO. All have an Anglo-European heritage and are governed by majoritarian principles with protections for political minorities. But with all of these similarities, why do we daily perceive such striking differences between Norwegians and their British and American "cousins" in attitudes toward social class, size of government, social equality, and manifest patriotism? How can we succinctly explain these differences to ourselves, and to our Norwegian and American students?

It seems inappropriate to characterize Americans as "individualists" and "materialists" because the United States has such a diverse population and many Americans would not embrace those descriptors. England has at times been described as "a nation of eccentrics" -- a somewhat unkind descriptor that applies only to a narrow band of citizens. If these descriptors are fatally flawed, might a descriptor at a comparable level of generality aptly describe Norwegians? Norway is a far more cohesive society than either the United States or Great Britain. The population of Norway is quite small and, for centuries until perhaps 1970, Norway has attracted few migrants. …

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