Germany: Citywide charm offensive

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

BERLIN – Berliners have a reputation for being surly, sarcastic, and downright rude. It’s known here as the “Berliner Schnauze”; for Germans, it is as potent a symbol of the capital city as the Brandenburg Gate or Checkpoint Charlie.

As this city readies itself for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Berlin Senate has sponsored a nearly €200,000 campaign aimed at making residents less in-your-face. The new Freundlichkeitsoffensive (friendliness initiative) called “Big Hearts & Big Mouths,” was announced in late 2008 and began officially in March, according to René Gurke, CEO of Berlin Partner GMBH, the agency designing the campaign.

Asking Berliners to be polite sounds a lot like asking Parisians to curb their dogs, or asking New Yorkers not to jaywalk. But Berlin hopes to influence people’s attitudes by appointing “good mood ambassadors” to provide helpful information with a smile. The volunteer ambassadors will be drawn from members of the service sector, including 1,000 police, 2,000 transit workers, and 500 garbage collectors, according to an article in the Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung.

In addition, postcards that poke fun at typically cheeky Berlin back talk, often rendered in the city’s harsh urban dialect, will be distributed in restaurants around town. “These cards are fantastic, they show we don’t always take ourselves too seriously and that we can laugh at ourselves, too,” Senate spokesman Richard Meng told news agency Agence France-Presse.

Berlin has never been modest about itself, especially now as it continues to reinvent itself as the new cultural capital of Europe. Friendliness initiative or no, Berlin might learn to be a little more courteous, but the attitude will surely stay.

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