A Capital Make-Over Teaching Berlin to Be Nice

Berlin has a reputation for gruffness, churlishness, rudeness and ill manners. A new campaign seeks to change all that. But can it be done?


When it comes to transforming negative qualities into a sales pitch, few cities excel like Berlin does. Tens of thousands of citizens on welfare and a €60 billion municipal debt? No problem: Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit calls his city "poor but sexy." Then there are the long, cold winter nights punctuated by short, gray days. But who needs sun when you've got world-class night clubs?

Even the infamous habit many city residents possess of grumbling, stare-at-the-ground churlishness combined with insulting gruffness has been sold throughout history as a charming element of the Berlin personality. It has been called the "Berliner Schnauze" -- or, Berlin snout -- over the years, almost as an apology for how annoying it can really be.

This week, though, Berlin seems to be making a small concession to manners. On Wednesday, just as Berlin's annual tourism convention kicks off, the city will start what it is calling a "friendliness offensive." The idea is to increase the number of smiles one sees on the streets, in the subways and at restaurants. Already, some 1,000 police, 2,000 public transportation workers and hundreds of others from street cleaners to taxi drivers to waiters and waitresses have committed themselves to the program.

Part of the project involves those in the tourism industry passing out maps and giving directions to tourists or newcomers if needed. The goal, said Rene Gurka, who heads up the company in charge of PR for the German capital, "is to make the city a bit friendlier." Those taking part in the campaign will be outfitted with buttons letting tourists know who the friendly Berliners are.

It's not the first time such a campaign has been undertaken. Just before the World Cup football championships in 2006, Berlin made an effort to teach its citizens how to smile. And, at least for the duration of the tournament, it worked, with many praising Germany for being such gracious hosts.

The urbanity has since faded however. Once again, such niceties as "hello" and "thank you" have become rare, and crowded sidewalks are again dangerous as Berliners seek to completely ignore anyone they don't immediately recognize.

In short, the new niceness campaign doesn't come a moment too soon -- as Germany's former economy minister, Michael Glos (from Bavaria), can report. In February, just before he resigned from his post, Glos was on his way to a meeting with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. A Berlin policeman providing security for the event didn't recognize Glos and stopped the car.

But, protested Glos, I am the economy minister. "I don't give a damn," the policeman responded. Whereupon Glos' driver, presumably also from Berlin, drove over the cop's foot.

cgh -- with wire reports

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