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Prime Time: A secular version of the Ten Commandments

President John F. Kennedy reminded his countrymen many times that we are "A Nation of Immigrants," that each new person who comes to America automatically brings three forms of mental baggage along: His or her language, religion and culture.

The latter term gets defined commonly as "pretty much the way folks think and do things." And these cultures, once carried over here from abroad, would continue to be carried on by the next American-born generations, at least in part -- and easily seen in "Old World" foods, especially at Christmas time. In that sense the Old-World culture still lives on in America in the way all people are taught to think and to act -- or not act.

To illustrate, non-Norwegian-Americans sometimes wonder why Norwegian-Americans are the way they are. To be charitable, outsiders often view Scandinavians stereotypically and thus think their ideas are, well, "different," and that euphemism might mean good or bad, goofy and/or dumb, proper or out of the loop -- or none of the above. Whatever, they're at times surely different (translation: strange), with some curious results in how to act.

For example, being "different" may be notable in the husband who loved his wife so much that he almost told her so. Or the wife who complained to her spouse that he hadn't told her he loved her since the day they were married -- and his reply: "I know, if I change my mind, I'll let you know."

Why are Scandinavians that way? So often perceived as unemotional, so stiff, so stoic, so uncommunicative, so self-deprecating, so modest, so boring. Why do these folks respond to some especially good accomplishment on their part with an "Ah shucks, it wuss nuthin'" -- and then quickly change the subject. How many generations back was there a child who knew he/she had done something right on a project when a parent had said nothing to them about it afterward? Are there still men who buy a new car, then hide it in the back of the garage for a year, then bring it out so they can explain to folks that, "Oh ya, it might look new, but it's a year old."

In the upper Midwest, people often teasingly pass these mannerisms off as, well, "just simply Norwegian." But why? Any explanation? And where and when did it start and what's kept it going? Probably one of the better explanations to this type of personality is a strange term to Americans: Janteloven. Essentially, this is a set of "rules" first spelled out by Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 novel about a small town and the gossip that spread there like wildfire. (An English version of the book in 1936 was called "A Fugitive Crosses the Tracks," a title of little help to explain anything.) In the book, Jante is a fictional term that gets tied to loven, which means laws, hence "laws" aimed at the citizens of Norway (Minnesota?) on how to live and behave properly.

What remains unclear even to present-day literary critics is determining the author's motives behind his book and those 10 "laws" he so carefully listed. Was he being sarcastic? Serious? Cute? Funny? Mordant? Difficult to know.

Whatever's behind them, the messages coming forward from the author are that Society reminds (warns?) each individual how to live in relationship to the rest of us (your fellow citizens) and these are the "rules":

1) Don't think you're anything special. (In Norwegian it reads: Du skal ikke tro du er noe.)

2) Don't think you're as good as us.

3) Don't think you're smarter than us.

4) Don't convince yourself you're better than us.

5) Don't think you're more important than us.

6) Don't think you are good at anything.

7) Don't laugh at us.

8) Don't think anyone cares about you.

9) Don't think you know more than us.

10) Don't think you can teach us anything.

Just about the moment that a reader dismisses the above rules as quaint, at best, and nonsense at worst, comes questions to that reader: Where you happen to live, is it wise today to boast highly of one's accomplishments? Really, is vanity acceptable anywhere? And overall, are these rules really just basic Midwestern "commandments" that seem to float everywhere in the cultural air? Could they not simply be another way of trying to define "Minnesota Nice"?