Caught in the grip of griping

SUN JOURNAL

Whining: In Austria, a campaign is launched to cure the citizens of their penchant for complaining.

October 10, 2002|By Patti McCracken | Patti McCracken,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

VIENNA, Austria - Trying to get Austrians to quit complaining is like trying to get the rain to stop falling in England. As people here readily admit, moaning and griping are something of a national pastime.

"It's what we do, who we are. You can't change a mentality," says Gerhard Theyer, a 46-year-old Viennese surgeon. He leans his large body against the door frame, blowing cigarette smoke toward the ceiling, pausing to reflect on what he has just said, and then reaffirming it.

"It's just who we are," he says, shrugging, as if surrendering himself to fate. He speaks with certainty, firmly delivering the diagnosis to the patient. Things are what they are.

Nevertheless, "Anti-Moaning Zones" have begun to appear throughout Austria, concentrated mostly in large urban areas such as Vienna, a city known not only for Mozart and great coffeehouses but also for surly waiters and crabby old ladies (they shin-kick offending tram passengers who violate the elderly seating area).

Fed up with complaints, specifically about the economy, and worried that a bad attitude will make things worse, the Austrian chapter of the International Advertising Agency devised a scheme: Start a campaign to turn those frowns upside down.

"It came from the print and advertising industry. There is such a pessimistic atmosphere, and sometimes in such an atmosphere businesses cannot grow," says Dr. Heinrich Schuster, an IAA board member who was instrumental in getting the anti-moaning campaign off the ground.

"We thought that we cannot only discuss the problems affecting us, we have to do something," Schuster says.

After nearly $1 million in contributions poured in from businesses and the media, which have given free ad space for the promotion, the campaign was launched in late July. Suddenly, images of a cartoon frowny face with a red slash through it began to emerge all over town: at bus stops, on trains, in shop windows, on television. Nicht Rauchen signs (No Smoking) were suddenly competing for space with Nicht Raunzen signs (No Moaning), an intentional play on words and iconography that has intrigued at least some residents.

"It caught my attention because it looks like the No Smoking sign, and I'm an avid nonsmoker," says Inge Blair, a 53-year-old resident who has returned to the city after living for 15 years in Los Angeles. "But then I thought `Stop complaining about what?' Nicht Raunzen doesn't tell you much."

Gripes stand ever ready on the tip of the Viennese tongue: high taxes, for example, or softening borders with some East European nations. Austrians are stumped by the ads, though. They want to know what they're supposed to stop griping about as well as who is sponsoring the campaign, as the IAA and its partners in the project have not publicly disclosed their involvement. One resident suspected that the extreme-right Freedom Party was behind it.

For the most part, though, the Viennese choose not to speculate too far afield about the nebulous campaign, but they have little doubt that the initiative targets them, the city dwellers, more so than the people living in the countryside.

"We can whine better, and we're more aggressive," quips Blair.

It seems that Austrians would have little to complain about. This small nation is a rich one. It boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world, above that of the United States, and a very low violent-crime rate. It prizes higher education and places a high priority on social status. The German spoken here is Hochdeutsch, High German, the equivalent of the Queen's English.

Although this is not a nation of snobs, it is one of class, but the leaders of society carry with them the burden of a recently fallen empire. It was not all that long ago that their grandparents and great-grandparents watched as the Austrian empire, which ruled Central Europe for half a millennium, and economically controlled the rest of the continent, collapsed in a heap at the end of World War I.

Austria commanded the same sort of respect that America does today, and for more than twice as long, which might be why the generations that have come along since are generations of cynics. Moaners and gripers, the lot of them. It's not easy to watch power, which was at one time a birthright, slip from the fingers. It makes for a cranky population.

The gloomy attitudes are evidenced in the literature of those early post-war years, among the most telling in the words of novelist Robert Musil. He summed up the national psyche when he said, "Our time is a time of accomplishment, and accomplishments are always disappointments."

The next step in this campaign, if there is to be one, is undetermined. The more than 3,000 posters and billboards were scheduled to come down at the end of last month, and the television spots will run again if the campaign continues.

Meanwhile, this nation of moaners will grumble and gripe - about politics, about the neighbors, about the young people, about the prices, about the weather - the same things that people everywhere gripe about, but with a mumble, a tone, an attitude that could only be defined as typically Austrian. Taking away the grumbles and gripes that flow from the Viennese coffeehouses is like removing the stars from the American flag. After all, moaning is as Austrian as free-flowing beer, dirndls and lederhosen.

"It is," surgeon Theyer says, "who we are."

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