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Business

Don't Worry, Be Happy … or You're Fired!

Some say Germany is a nation of complainers. One company in Leipzig got tired of all the bellyaching and instituted a "no grumbling" policy. Experts say a little less whining could be good for the country.

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A little more of this couldn't hurt Germany

There are days when Franka Michalski simply wakes up on the wrong side of the bed. It could be she tossed and turned all night, or it might be raining cats and dogs outside. But when she goes to her job as a customer support technician at the IT firm Nutzwerk, she better put on a happy face, or at least keep her dark thoughts to herself. At her job, moaning and groaning can put you in the unemployment line.

The contract she signed when she took the job stipulates that griping on the job is strictly verboten.

"After about two months, I learned how to work in this company," she said. "Now, maybe sometimes I'm in a bad mood, but then I come to work and my colleague is smiling at me and it makes me happy."

Although it might sound like a German remake of "The Stepford Wives," the policy put into place at Nutzwerk is the company CEO's attempt to stanch in at least one place what many say is an almost unending flow of verbal woe emanating from German mouths.

"In Germany, it's typical to be angry about everything -- politicians, the weather, prices, whatever," said Ramona Wonneberger, the head of Nutzwerk, which provides computer security for clients around the globe and employs 16 people. "But you cannot get to the top if you have employees who are complaining all the time."

No party poopers

Four years ago, the company put the new sentence into the contract, requiring its employees to have a positive attitude. It happened after managers noticed that one employee had a continual black cloud over his head, which often got his co-workers all wet.

Jammern Trauer Symbolbild

This kind of attitude is not what Nutzwerk wants

No matter how many new clients the company had gotten on board or which new milestone was crossed, the gloomy Gus brought the rest of the team down, according to Vice President Thomas Kuwatsch.

"So we realized, by not having complaining at the office, people would work better and more effectively, and maybe even have more fun there," he said. "If they want to complain, they need to also bring forward a solution to the problem."

Most of the firm seems to have signed on to the new philosophy, although there has been at least one person who has been let go because of breach of contract, that is, a bad attitude.

Happy can help

While Nutzwerk's solution to all the public lamenting might seem to lean toward the extreme, general opinion does seem to be that a little more positive thinking could do the county some good.

Germany's reputation among some as a land of gray clouds and matching demeanors is unfair, but as with most stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth to it. While southern Europeans are largely seen as life-loving carousers and Americans as grinning optimists, Germans can come across as dour killjoys, griping non-stop as they zip down their sleek autobahns in their late-model BMWs on their way to six weeks of annual vacation in Italy or Spain.

"I think it's a matter of communication and style that sets Germans apart quite strongly from other nations or groups," said Norbert Kathmann, a clinical psychologist at Berlin's Humboldt University. "Germans tend to put anything negative right up front, and then complain about it."

Jammern Symbolbild

The grumpiness has reached the highest levels, some charge

He doesn't think that Germans are more clinically depressed than others, but if they feel unsure about something, or unwell in any way, he says, they tend to let people know about it. The exact reasons for that are unknown. While theories as to its origins abound -- from the remnants of Prussian militarism to the destruction of World War II and guilt about the Nazi period -- there is as yet no consensus among experts.

But the Germans might not be blamed for some of the bellyaching right now. The country is going through some difficult times. There is high unemployment, stagnant economic growth and political reforms that have made many Germans very unsure of their future financial security. Morale has been low, anger has been bubbling to the surface. In a poll, conducted by an arm of insurer R+V Versicherung, 52 percent of Germans said they were "very afraid" of the future -- up from 25 percent in 1991. Many people think that this fearful, negative attitude is not going to get Germany out of its current morass.

Cheer up, Germany!

Now a sort of national pep talk is underway, put on by publishing giant Bertelsmann and 23 other companies --including publisher Axel Springer, newsmagazine Der Spiegel and broadcaster RTL Germany -- to lift those brooding German spirits, and hopefully the economy.

"We think that about 50 percent of economic sector is psychological, so the way men and women think and behave is really important for the macroeconomic sector," said Lars Cords, head of the feel-good campaign called "Du bist Deutschland" ("You are Germany").

Du bist Deutschland Du bist Beckenbauer Kampagne

From the "You are Germany" campaign.

The four-month, 35-million-euro ($41 million) media campaign features billboards, magazine ads and a fairly schmaltzy two-minute TV ad featuring German celebrities and everyday folk telling people to buck up. Figure-skating champion Katarina Witt is there, as is national soccer team goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. The message is: yeah, times are tough, but Germany has what it takes to get back on track. It's the largest social campaign the country has ever seen.

"The aim is a kind of jumpstart to a new spirit of optimism in Germany, more confidence and motivation," said Cords. "Too many Germans see the glass as half empty, and that is behavior we would like to change."

He admits that a TV campaign is not going to change ingrown habits in a few months, and Nutzwerk's CEO Wonneberger says good moods cannot be decreed from on high.

"You can't really say, 'You have fun now!' It's not going to work," she admits, although some recessive Prussian gene might like it to. But others are already starting to pick up on her idea. She's been asked to come hold a training session on mandated good moods for a local insurance firm.

She's started her own Web site for her sideline as an anti-anger trainer. The name, translated into English, would be www.gethappy.de. Wonneberger said one employee they had to let go said she couldn't abide the happy atmosphere at work: "'It's so strange here,' the employee always said. That kind of attitude is what we need to change."

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