Polish culture and Polish attitude to life could be probably a good subject for a long essay. It can be a lot said about Polish pride and superstition. It is even more to remember when visiting a Pole at home. We help Warsaw expats to avoid common cultural faux pas. Read our Polish culture guide for expats in Poland.
As an expatriate in Poland you might seem to feel Polish culture is contradictory and a bit illogical. The first thing you need to know about the Poles is how proud they are and don’t get misleaded about Poles pesimistic attitude. Most of the Poles do openly pick on their country, politicians and law, however they will fiercely defend their homeland in every discussion with a foreigner. So, be aware and do not get teased into such conversations!
In spite of the highest emigration rate in the new European Union, Poles are quite satisfied with their lives and are optimistic about their future… According to the latest EU survey on the Quality of Life, Polish people are happier and more satisfied with their quality of life than most of the other Europeans. Their subjective quality of life index is as high as the Austrians’ and much higher than Italians’. But then again, if you ask the same Pole, if his/her life is close to where he/she would like it to be, half of them will respond negatively.
Quite illogical? Maybe, but that’s the Polish culture: full of baffling contradictions!
Family plays quite an important role in Poland. Further cousins are often called brothers and sisters and grandparents are often part of young couples lives. It is still not unheard of, that young marriages live with their parents and get their help in bringing up children. Moreover, once you are married with a Pole, your spouse’s parents become automatically your parents, since you should call them: mum and dad.
Polish society is very traditional and they festive their national habits. Every Pole spends Christmas with the closest family. On the one hand, it might seem that young Poles are rather conservative, as they marry before they have children and usually women stay at home to bring up children.
On the other hand however, it’s the Polish women that are known for the entrepreneurial approach, educate themselves, make careers and men help at home, cook and take time to educate their children. If you compare it to Sweden, as one of the most liberal and pro-paternity society, the Poles will not be far behind. Although paternity leave is still seldom in Poland, husbands very often take their time after work to cook and help with children.
Meeting a Pole
A welcome kiss is very important. If you are among young people you will be kissed once on a cheek. However, the older generation will kiss 3 times and give you a hug. Man only shake hand or just say hello.
When you meet a Pole, be aware that a standard “How are you?” has a completely different meaning than in English, Spanish or even German language.
So, don’t be perplexed when instead of just plain “I’m fine”, you will have to listen to rather long story. Mostly, you will figure out, that the story is not a positive booster or a funny latest experience. Poles do complain a lot and are rather timid, however it doesn’t mean they are unhappy nor they expect sympathy! It is the same as talking about their country! Poles are allowed to complain… but they don’t want to hear it from foreigners.
Approach to time
Poles have quite interesting approach to time. Especially in cities you will realize people are in a hurry all the time. No matter what, everybody rushes, cannot wait and will definitely make sure you know (s)he doesn’t like it when you just take it easy! Queuing & waiting is the worst thing can happen to any Pole, so if you just miss your green light on traffic lights, you can be sure to hear the angry horns from cars behind you.
Business-wise people tend to be on time. Take it to the second. Time is money and Poles know it.
Interestingly enough in the personal life, the approach to time changes dramatically. There is an exact savoir-vivre and everybody knows you do NOT come on time. Every lady should be at least 5 min. late, otherwise she is not a lady! All students are allowed to be 15 min. late… it has even its own name – academic quarter – you are late only then when you exceed the academic quarter.
You are also expected to come late to an invited dinner, again at least 15 min. If you are invited to a party even an hour late is allowed or even advised! And don’t you even try to be on time – it would be considered as a faux pas!
Working with a Pole
Poles might seem to be chaotic and not well organized and don’t quite follow the standard process.
The approach to work would be best described by comparing Poles to Germans and Swedes. When you give a task to a German, he would take it and complete it within a given time frame delivering exactly what was asked for. A Swede would first discuss with you why it is needed, give his input, agree to a long-term strategy and then after a long discussion complete the task on time. A Pole would take it and think of a different way of achieving the target, so it takes less time or less effort. This can be described as a Polish “kombinowanie”, which doesn’t necessarily come from ‘combine’, more from ‘contrive’. If you don’t believe something can be done, a Pole will find a way around it!
Young Poles might seem to be over-ambitious and self-centered, as they do indeed feel they can achieve anything! They are career-oriented and can work very hard to achieve what they had planned to climb up a company ladder. The pro-active attitude and self-initiative are most common features of a high educated young Pole.
You will realize big international corporations are full with young professionals, who before they turned 30 made it to Board Member position. Even more often, a boss of a 50 year old is a young professional who graduated some 5 years ago. This trend is especially strong in IT industry and sales functions.
Dating a Pole
Polish boys like to flirt, Polish girls like to be admired… That leads to only one result: girls are spoilt… but they keep it modest! Typically, when you compliment a lady’s look, you hear some contradication from her side: “oh, but that’s an old dress!” or “I don’t really look that good today!” etc… But they do appreciate it, so don’t get confused!
Polish men are real gentlemen. They bring flowers, open doors, help with a coat, pay at a restaurant. Girls can really feel as if they were princesses.
Polish culture is linked immensely to the Catholic tradition. Most of the Polish customs relate either to the religious festive or seasonal and farming habits. Although Polish society seems to be quite religious it’s also very superstitious.
The most effort is put in organizing Christmas.
Uncommon to some other western cultures, the biggest day is the Christmas Eve when the presents are distributed and a dining table is the richest.
Tradition obliges to cover the Christmas table for one additional uninvited guest which symbolizes the hospitality and support for those who don’t have proper Christmas. Christmas Eve dinner starts only after the first star appears on the sky which symbolizes the star of Bethlehem. An official part begins with the oblat sharing which reminds the holy bread. All family members wish each other all the best for the upcoming year.
There are exactly 12 dishes served during the festive dinner. The most important one is carp, which usually is bought still alive and kept in a bathtub (!) until the Christmas Eve dinner. Traditionally meat is not served on the Dec. 24. There is a lot of fish, cabbage, soup… and no sweets. These are allowed only from Christmas Day onwards.
No matter how religious the Poles might seem at first, they are one of the most superstitious nations in Europe. Although nobody can really explain why certain things need to be done this way not other, everybody seems to know the rules and follows them blindly. If you don’t… bad luck will chase you. For all expats in Poland we have mentioned some rules – some are very serious, some other less…
- When you visit a Pole at home, never ever shake a hand through the door. You should come in first, close the door and then greet everybody.
- If you give flowers, count them well! Only uneven number of flowers can be given to a lady. Even numbers are brought to a funeral.
- A lady should never put her handbag on the floor.
- If a black cat crosses your road, spit behind you immediately – only then you can undo the bad luck.
- Don’t you ever break a mirror. There is nothing you can do to make it up – bad luck will last for 7 years!
As you head to a public toilet in a restaurant or a bar, don’t get misleaded by a strange signs at a toilet doors. Sometimes, instead of a female and male posture, you will find a circle and a triangle. Don’t get confused! A circle symbolises a female and a triangle a male.