Berliners have the reputation of being rude. In his Berlin 24/7 column, DW's Gero Schliess explains, however, why he was pleasantly surprised.
Berlin is so dirty and Berliners are so unfriendly, complains my neighbor Andrea. After a six-month stay in San Francisco with her husband and son, she would have preferred not to come back to the German capital.
You hear this complaint quite often in Berlin. There's even an expression to describe Berliners' gruff manners: the "Berliner Schnauze." And you can meet the attitude throughout the city, even though a soft center is presumably hiding inside the hard shell.
Fear and horror at the supermarket
For example, Berliner supermarkets famously instill fear in many. You barely feel tolerated when you're there. The strict staff in a perpetual bad mood makes some customers tremble. At a supermarket near the popular Kollwitzplatz, an older cashier seems to invest her entire energy in surpassing all of the clients' worst apprehensions.
The worst-case scenario happened to me the first time I went shopping there. First offense: I forgot to place a divider between my purchases and those of the young mother next to me. We had both simply forgotten it - and were reminded it was mandatory thanks to the cashier's biting remarks.
The young mother turned red and apologized several times. I remained calm and tried to appease the situation with a joke, saying it wasn't a capital offense.
That was a big mistake, I immediately found out. The ruthless reaction of the cashier did not wait. It was in the category "if looks could kill." Her face hardened, she slammed my debit card in front of me and concluded the transaction without saying a word.
An effusive 'good morning'
When I was living in the US, people seemed friendlier. Of course, things seem better in your memories. Yet I can still exactly remember how the receptionist at my office building greeted me with an effusive "good morning!" the first time I walked in. That made my day.
I also remember my first day of work in Berlin. I was quite stressed. After Washington, the bar was high. How would the man behind the glass door react? As inhospitably as Berliners are said to be?
As I approached the door, I couldn't believe my eyes. Someone waved and greeted me with a cheerful "good morning," opening the door for me even before I could do it myself with my electronic ID.
"My mother always used to say, a smile doesn't cost anything," explained Torsten Peter. I also found out that he had spent a long period abroad.
I have experienced it myself: Berliners can be friendly, and you don't need to get bruised on a hard shell first.
Torsten Peter is not an isolated case.
There's the unknown cyclist who warned me that the buckle of my bag was hanging dangerously low and might get caught in my bicycle spokes. Or the friendly bus driver who could still patiently name the upcoming bus stations after being asked three times.
Is unfriendliness just a communication problem?
These friendly encounters made me think: Is the "Berliner Schnauze" perhaps just a communication problem?
A friend of mine who is a psychologist offered his explanation: Berliners are not unfriendly as such, he said, but rather very direct. That means: if Berliners are abrupt, if they avoid excessive courtesies, it's purely to save time.
My stubbornly nagging remaining doubts were to quickly evaporate on my following visit to the same supermarket. The gruff cashier seemed completely transformed. She was friendly and upbeat, smiling at everybody, as if she intuitively wanted to challenge me to turn her into a monstrous negative example in my column.
To top the miraculous transformation, she wished me a nice day when I left. That's when I knew for sure: Berliners can also be friendly.