Berlin Beak

It sounds rough but it comes from that muscle what is pumpin´the blood     :-D

When I was in my twenties, I embarked on what was then the biggest adventure of my life.

Travelled from Berlin to Mexico all by myself is what I did. 

It was great, even though sometimes I felt lonely and vulnerable, but at the end of the day, learning how to deal with that was a pretty good experience. 


I also had a lot of fun.

Got seasick from trying to sleep in a hammock.

Learnt how to snorkle.

Talked to an elderly Mexican gentleman who had studied in Paris and after all these years still felt excited that he had once spotted Walter Benjamin in the bibliothèque nationale.

Had a one night stand in Acapulco.

Drank the best Mexican beer ever while soaking in the bathtub of a charmingly rundown hotel in Mexico City. And:

I learnt something about hospitality.


Cause several times, when I entered into a restaurant, the following scene played out:

I was greeted by the staff with a big fat smile and somewhat limited English vocabulary. 

To which I would reply with an equally big smile and somewhat limited SPANISH vocabulary.


"Ah!" is what the restaurant staff would exclaim next, "are you NOT from the United States?"

"No" I replied, " I am from Germany. And I am afraid my Spanish is not very good but I was thinking, neither one of us is a native English speaker so we might still try to speak Spanish if you like and at least one of us wont need to scramble for words."


While I was saying this, something fascinating happened to the mimic of the waiter. The big fat smile disappeared and got replaced by a smaller, but much more convincing one. Cause now the person no longer made an EFFORT to shape their mouth into an upward shape, because aparently they no longer felt the need to pretend. Instead, their eyes that lit up and convinced me that I had managed to say something they truly felt pleased about.


"Thats so cool", the waiter would say, "we never ever get any tourists here who even TRY to speak Spanish, but you are doing your best so dont worry if you are not perfect because you are our friend! And of course we dont charge tourist prices to our friends, so you can pay the same as the locals btw."


Talk about how studying humanities doesnt pay off lol.


Today I thought about this memory because of a facebook post I had read. I live in Berlin, capital of Germany. Due to the Berlin Wall history, Berlin used to be fairly isolated and provincial, but nowadays we have a growing expat community.

To me it feels natural to interact with these "New Berliners", as I have lived in a number of different countries myself, which is why I have joined some facebook groups for "Berlin Expats", even though this is my hometown.

And there I have noticed that aparently a lot of New Berliners are having a hard time to get used to the German customer service mentality. Or lack thereof lol, as it appears to many. They feel that German waiters dont smile at them, and dont make them feel welcome. 

I felt sorry to read this and therefore I want to try and explain what I believe is often more of a misunderstanding than bad intention.


Berlin has a special kind of communication culture, the so called "Berliner Schnauze."

Schnauze ist the mouth of some animals, for example dogs, only I think "Berlin snout" doesnt sound very fancy, therefore I would like to suggest the term "Berlin beak" 

(If there are any illustrators out there, could you make a drawing of the Berlin bear with a beak like BigBird from Sesame Street lol?)


Berlin beak can be described as a code of communication which relies on a tongue-in-cheek, dry sense of humour and replaces all flattery with seemingly rude language. 


There is no easy way to translate Berlin beak into English, but here is an example I saw on telly which I think  has a similar EFFECT:

Lucy Liu, playing "an actress from Queens" (so basically herself) in the series Sex and the City.

When she meets people, she doesnt say anything like "Hello darling, how are you?" but instead she greets them with "Yo bitch whats up."


Which is roughly what Berlin beak is all about, bonding with others by seemingly insulting them.




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This linguistic code is fun when you are in on it, but for outsiders it can be quite intimidating. I know this only too well because I am myself from another part of Germany originally, so when I first came to Berlin, I also felt a little frightened at first.


And I imagine that it is more intimidating when you are not just from another town like me, but instead you are from another country and dont speak (very much) German at all. 


If thats the case, however, please dont take it personal :-) Its not meant that way at all!


Whats really going on is this: Berliners think of formal friendliness as insincere.

Lets say for example a Berliner is going to a restaurant in the United States.

As soon as we see the big fat smile on the face of the restaurant staff, the more mellow of us are going to think something like this:

"Oh come on, why dont you cut the sugarcoating you hypocrite! I know you only want my money" whereas the less mellow are trying to peer round the person to see if they hold a dagger behind their back. Why try so hard to pull the wool over our eyes unless they are up to something truly terrible lol.


Once you know this, I think it is a little easier to imagine that to us, Berlin beak does not feel hostile. It feels honest and in the best of times extremely funny.


If you are a New Berliner however, you will probably need some time before you become an insider to this code. Dont loose hope! Perhaps you can imagine you are watching yourself as the character in a whacky movie if it helps.


You dont need to learn perfect German, in fact we have a lot of popular tv celebrities who learnt German as their second language and I think even after many years they are secretly cultivating some of their signature mistakes because they know that they sound really cute.


Learning some German wont harm but if you are really pressed for time, I think you can get by as long as you know how to say "Hello how are you. Sorry my German is not very good, can you speak English perhaps?"  That would be "Hallo, wie geht es Ihnen. Entschuldigung, mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut, können Sie vielleicht Englisch?" cause the thing is, many Germans CAN speak English but only a little bit, and therefore they are feeling selfconscious. But they usually dont mind to help you out as long as they dont worry you will be laughing about THEIR mistakes.


I think its worth the patience, cause in the end you might just get rewarded with people making you feel welcome even when you aren´t spending any money at all. In the meantime, as one New Berliner on facebook put it, you can always start by enjoying the peace and quiet of being left to your own devices while eating your food, instead of having to mumble something about how delicious everything is to the restaurant staff 5 times and choking because your mum has taught you not to speak with a full mouth :-D


Corona Virus Update:

When I wrote this article, one year ago, Berlin was a vibrant and mostly happy boomtown, but now it is Corona Times, and that makes everybody a lot more stressed. 

That is a shame of course, but it is nobodys fault, that is, if you are not a bat-eater as I assume ;-)


These days, when you meet a grumpy person, it is twice as important to remember not to take that grumpiness personal and give them the benefit of the doubt, they probably are having a hard day...


One day this nightmare will be over, in the meantime, for those of you who haven't had Covid yet, I actually have and I have made a video about my experience. For me, it was mostly like a bad cold, except that I have never been so frightened in my life when I had a cold before ;-)


I think, it is generally a good idea to try and prevent infection if you can, especially now that there seems to be a vaccine on the horizon in the near future. But most likely, some people will catch it no matter how careful they are, and for those, I have made the video, hoping that you won't need to be as frightened as I have been :-)