Danish Cultural Perceptions Toward Oral History
Last week I was at an annual conference for the Association of Personal Historians in St. Louis, Missouri. This is my fourth conference to attend, and one of the highlights for me is catching up with people from all over the world that I communicate with regularly but don’t get to see in person all too often, as well as meeting new historians and learning about the work that they are up to.
This year I had the pleasure of having dinner with a Danish woman. She told me about a long standing value system in Denmark that was incorporated into the social structure of Danish people. The law is called Law of Jante and was written by a Danish-Norwegian author, Aksel Sandemose, in his novel, “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks” in 1933.
This book and included law identifies a social culture of not standing out from the crowd. For example: rule one states “you are not to think you’re anything special.” Rule two: “you are not to think you’re as good as us.” And so forth. These rules have been incorporated into the way Danish people see themselves and live their lives. The final rule 10 states that: “you are not to think you can teach us anything.” In this fictional book that takes place in the town of Jante, townspeople who transgress this unwritten law are regarded with suspicion and hostility, going against the communal desire to preserve harmony and social stability.
Denmark is known for its progressive and high standard of living. It is a culture of art, education and intellectual heritage. But in a society where deliberate attempts to distinguish oneself from others is seen as going against stability, it becomes ingrained in the people to not talk about themselves. The effect of this sociological attitude is that a person involved in the recording of oral history would find it very difficult to accomplish this.
My friend told me about her involvement in The Global Dignity Project. This program involves young people in activities and conversations to implement the universal right of every human being to lead a dignified life. Her hope is to introduce a new conversation around getting to know the family history and talking with elders, such as grandparents, to find out about their roots. This, after all, is what the work of an oral historian does. But in a society that is uncomfortable talking about oneself for fear that you may be perceived as being better than others, this self-reflection can pose a lot of problems.
I too have encountered Americans that initially feel uncomfortable talking about themselves. They say things like, “who cares about my life,” or “I have done nothing important to merit all this attention.” I have always felt that these reactions are probably more to do with how that person was raised rather than a social system that ostracizes one for speaking about oneself. But on a national level, I see how much my friend is taking on by attempting to help change this conversation. Oral history is so important to how we see ourselves on an individual, family, community and global level. We have so much to learn by learning about those that came before us.
While at our conference, I saw that she was so excited to meet so many people already working in the field of documenting personal history. We were able to inspire her and show her that yes, this can be done. I really admire her willingness to take on a conversation that shifts a national social perception. That’s big stuff!
Stefani Twyford is a personal historian and video biographer sharing life stories, connecting generations and preserving legacies. To learn more, visit her web site, find her on Twitter as @stefanitwyford, visit the Legacy Multimedia Facebook Fan Page, or send her an e-mail.
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