I don’t want to say Berliners get a bad rap, because they can be incredibly rude. They live up to the standard German reputation of shutting doors in your face, non-existent customer service, and refusal to engage in simple pleasantries – then up the ante with Berliner Schnauze (literally “Berlin snout”). This phrase perfectly encapsulates Berliner’s unique vocabulary and dialect, coarse humor and general gruffness.
An example of Berliner Schnauze is that gut (good) becomes “yoot” and Ich (ish) changes to “icke”; das becomes “dat” and was is “wat”. Grammar is largely simplified.
The humor (yes – German humor exists) is direct, loud and can be downright crude. Heinrich Zille was a 1920s illustrator closely identified with Berlin sensibilities (example above) and giving realistic depictions of every day life from street prostitution to idyllic days out at Wannsee.
Berliners can speak Hochdeutsch (high German), but this dialect is the preferred speech in some social circles. The DDR considered it a cultural asset and promoted its preservation. On this note, they were very successful as residents from former East and West Berliner may speak with this strong accent. Where once it was indicative of origin, and then class, it feels like people proudly sport the accent now as a sign that they are a real Berliner.
While I still finding understanding the dialect a challenge, I appreciate that it has its own kind of charm. Berlin can be a big, tough city and this dialect reflects that. It challenges people with its no-nonsense, almost sarcastic nature. If someone insults you, it might mean they kinda like you. If you give it back, there will be downright affection. The Needle has a brilliant write-up on The Rise and Fall of Berliner Schnauze.
But this city isn’t all rough notes. Just as you need to get to know the Schnauze to appreciate it, sometimes you need to look a little harder to find the ways that Berliners are actually nice.
Berliners are Kid-Friendly (Kinda)
This might surprise the pregnant ladies I hear complaining that no one on the UBahn will give up their seat, but I find Berlin to be incredibly kid-friendly. True, the people aren’t gaga for babies like when you travel to Spain or Italy, but the city is built with children in mind with many public services to support families. Parks and playgrounds are EVERYWHERE – even if they come with extra graffiti decoration.
And this is a little example, but something that struck me just today. As the bus pulled up to the curb, a delivery truck blocked the way and the bus had to park awkwardly so it was almost impossible to get my stroller off the bus and onto the curb. Immediately, three Germans were at my side helping me to the sidewalk.
This is far from the first time. Whenever I have been unlucky enough to be alone with the stroller in a U or S-Bahn station without an elevator, someone has stepped forward to help – unprompted.
Berliners are Nice to their Kids
Far from the German stereotype of overly-strict conservative parenting, the Berlin parents I know are practically zen in their patience and understanding. They talk to their children, listen to their complaints, and handle them serenely. Children are treated as tiny humans, free to make their own decisions – right or wrong.
As I nervously hover by the sandbox reminding my child to ask before taking the other children’s toys, they chat together, read, or simply enjoy a moment to themselves. I aspire to this level of autonomy and respect.
Berliners are Nice about Healthcare
The bizarre “Hallo!” at the doctor office is much discussed among foreigners. In a country where you can’t get a hello or a smile on the street, enter a doctor’s office and the vibe is genuinely warm.
And where waiters and waitresses have perfected the sneer, health care professionals are a very nice crew in my experience. German doctors have been criticized for their lack of bedside manner, but what they lack in cheery smiles I think they make up for in being knowledgeable and helpful.
Aside from the professionals, Germans love talking about their health. If you are desperately searching for a topic for small talk, ask a German how they are feeling. Durchfall, Magendam, Kreislaufzusammenbruch will all be merrily discussed.
Berliners are Good People
For all their gruffness, Berliners are good people. Their is a sense of community I have never experienced before.
When I need to use the restroom in a cafe, I can be reasonably assured my belongings will be left untouched. I went to the Freibad (open-air pool) today and locked up my wallet, but let my toddler happily sprawl out her things on the spacious lawn and then left them when we went for a dip. Petty theft – particularly bike-theft – can and does happen here, but it feels like there is an expectation of decency that is upheld more often than not.
In our first year living in Berlin, I did something very, very stupid. Scratch that – I did and continue to do many stupid things. But this was some next level dumbness that I still cringe about today. (Don’t worry – there is a happy ending).
I had just finished my grocery shopping at one of the discount chains and was feeling a little rattled as I often did when shopping in Berlin. I entered the U-Bahn station with my headphones in and missed the tell-tale alarm as the doors threatened to close. Panicked, I thrust an arm in the door…with only the bag full of groceries making its way in. Two guys tried to wrench the doors open, but it was too late. My groceries glided away without me.
Numb with shock and out of money, I stepped on the next U-Bahn uncertain of how to proceed. As the next station came into view, I saw the two men who tried to open the doors waiting with my bag of groceries. Overwhelmed with relief, I was barely off and thanking them before they started in on the lecture. Oh how the Germans love to tell you when you’ve done wrong! And I had done wrong. I took my gentle lashing gratefully, as well as my groceries.
Everybody won that day.
If you want to further your understanding on German rudeness, check out Hyde’s excellent post on How to tell when Germans are really being rude versus just being German.