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Why Berlin is proud to be the world’s rudest city

In the German capital, rudeness is a part of everyday life. There’s even a term for it: the Berliner Schnauze

Written by
John Owen
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‘How sad. So young, but already blind.’ A middle-aged woman glared at me as I crossed Kantstrasse with the pedestrian light still glowing red. The everyday rudeness of Germany’s capital can jar with visitors. In restaurants, requests for things like tap water are likely to be treated with extreme irritation, and no amount of charm will stop shopworkers looking personally offended if a customer is taking up too much of their time.

Even longer-term residents regularly find themselves surprised by the directness which they encounter. Anyone who has ever lived here will have a ready clutch of anecdotes to illustrate this aspect of a place more often praised for its laidback lifestyle. One group of expats runs a Facebook ‘Support Group’ to share their experiences of particularly egregious examples of rudeness in parks, shops and train stations across the city.

And this isn’t just anecdotal: in the latest Time Out Index survey, Berlin emerged as the world’s rudest city. Of all the Berliners we surveyed, 55 percent described their city as rude.

Yet to write Berlin off as a rude city would be to misunderstand some of the rich culture that lies behind its gruffness. Berliners are proud of their Schnauze: literally ‘snout’, but better translated as ‘gobbiness’.

The Berliner Schnauze is part of the city’s working-class dialect. Marked by a staccato rhythm, harsh sounds and often hilariously direct wit, it is shaped by a belief in common-sense wisdom and a hatred of the pretentious. Developed in the period when Berlin grew into a modern industrial city, it borrows from a broad range of languages from French to Yiddish and is unlike any other Germanic dialect.

Even today, when a builder or chimney sweep (yes – this really still happens) comes round to your Berlin flat, they fully expect a bit of banter, and will be irritated if they don’t get to use a few of their favourite lines on you. Even native speakers of standard German can find it hard to keep up with Berlin dialect and pronunciation. And many Berliners like it that way.

Popular cultural figures are not spared from the city’s harsh irreverence. One of the most important chroniclers of Berlin’s industrialisation and rapid growth around the turn of the twentieth century was the caricaturist Heinrich Zille. To this day he is an omnipresent Berliner, with reproductions of his pictures (and their coarse captions) in virtually every more traditional bar in the city. Yet his nickname in the city is ‘der Pinsel Heinrich’: a glorious pun on the fact ‘Pinsel’ means both ‘paintbrush’ and ‘penis’.

As the city gentrifies, its working class has been pushed to its geographical and economic edge, while many businesses have started to import a more obviously obsequious, Anglo-American service culture. This deprives Berliners of their opportunities for Schnauze repartee, and can lead to jarring situations when the modern melting pot of Berlin struggles to incorporate one of its oldest cultural elements.

In private contexts, however, Schnauze is alive and well. It took me several goes at meeting some of my wife’s Urberliner (that is, born-and-bred) relatives to work out that I was expected to give as good as I got. ‘It’s a sign of respect – you have to see the fun in being insulted,’ is how she explains her city’s harsher side.

I got a good introduction to this rule when I was crossing that road in the heart of the old West Berlin. Stung, I spun round and spat back: ‘What a shame. So old, and still so rude.’ Ashamed at my outburst, I began to apologise… and found her gleefully chuckling back at me. ‘Dit war doch jut,’ she said between the guffaws: ‘That was pretty good!’

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