This Issue Back Issues Editorial Board Contact Information


Speaking Volumes about Poles

Piotr Wilczek

By Laura Klos Sokol, Warszawa. Wydawnictwo IPS. 1994. 89 pages. Paperback. No price given.

During my summer holidays in Poland in 1999, after ten months spent in the United States, I visited a new cafeteria in Kraków, a place that desperately attempted to look trendy and funky but gave the impression of snobbism and pretentiousness. The first spooky thing about it was its name: "Nalesniqi," the Polish equivalent of "Crepes," but the 'k' in the Polish version was replaced by a foreign 'q'--a letter not used in Polish. Upon entering "Nalesniqi," I was immediately asked: "Can I help you?" The question was asked in English. I left immediately, confused and not sure in which language I was supposed to answer. When some time later, already in the United States, I told an American friend about this English question in the center of the ancient Polish capital, he asked with amusement: "Did you have this stupid American smile on your face?" I probably did. And the "Nalesniqi" cashier did, too.

Laura Klos Sokol, the author of this book on Polish-American cross-cultural communications, would say that we both followed the American Smile Code. She quotes a Pole who returned to Poland after six years in America: "There's a lack of smiling here. It's not as spontaneous." Another Pole says: "Americans, in general, smile all the time. Here, people in the streets look worried." Of course, American smiles are not completely spontaneous, there exists a Smile Code described by the author. There is "a half or closed-mouth smile in the bank, store or bus" and a "big smile" which is not always desirable in public places: "people might think you were crazy, stupid, or on drugs. Or worse, a politician."

However, I prefer a smile, even restricted by social codes, than a lack of smiling and gloomy faces. When I visit some Polish businesses in Chicago, I find myself in a world where the Smile Code does not exist, the message is "take-me-seriously," and the customer seems to be a nuisance. In such an atmosphere I sometimes forget to use my "stupid American smile." And I do not think it is stupid at all. I observe this "customer-unfriendly" attitude, imported from Poland, with some nostalgia, since in Poland nowadays salespeople do their best to follow the American style of customer service and a big smile is often accompanied by a type of behavior close to aggression--you feel you will not be able to leave the store before buying an expensive pair of Italian shoes or the latest model of a DVD player. This paradox is a result of the current cultural and social changes in Central Europe.

The book I am reviewing was written by an American sociolinguist educated at Georgetown University who has lived in Poland for several years with her Polish husband and who teaches at the Institute of Applied Linguistics at the University of Warsaw. Published in an obscure publishing house and not very well distributed or advertised, this small book consists of short chapters that had previously appeared in The Warsaw Voice, an English-language weekly published in Poland. I was not successful in reaching the publisher or The Warsaw Voice editor, even via email, and could not learn whether there was a later, possibly enlarged edition of the book. However, even this 1994 edition is still worth discussing, since it includes observations valuable not only for Americans who live in Poland (and who are supposedly its target readers), but also to Poles who live in America, and to Americans who interact with them.

In forty-nine chapters, Ms. Sokol discusses various communication problems. Certain chapters of the book focus on language difficulties of Americans who try to speak Polish in Poland. She provides perceptive comments on the verb zalatwic. There is even a definition: "During the days of nie ma when goods were hard to come by in Poland. . . 'zalatwic something' meant to accomplish or acquire something by pulling strings, using connections, bribes or even personal wit and charm." Now, the author says, "Poland has moved into its post-zalatwic period" and she provides a subtle explanation of differences between the Polish zalatwic and the English to arrange or take care of.

Another observation deals with the juxtaposition of the words friend, colleague, acquaintance versus przyjaciel, kolega, znajomy. The author explains why the Polish words are not exact equivalents of the English ones. "With few other choices," she says, "Americans toss about the word friend easily. I think it has to do with the fact that Americans like to be liked and are eager to extend good will. Poles on the other hand, use przyjaciel carefully, since they feel that there are only very few true friends in life."

The notion of friendship itself is different in Poland and in America. According to the author, "some Poles are mystified or disappointed by friendships with Americans." She quotes from a book on American cultural patterns: Americans "rarely form deep and lasting friendships in which friends become mutually dependent upon each other." There is an "American reluctance to become deeply involved with other persons." The author is right when she explains that this Polish disappointment is not necessarily connected with American inability to form "deep and lasting relationships." "What might be misleading," she says, "is that many Americans are perceived as friendly, outgoing and open but this doesn't mean that they are committed." This chapter is entitled "Seeking therapeutic friendship" and the title is an allusion to an allegedly Polish understanding of close friendship. The author observes that Polish attitudes might be changing, and she wonders whether "therapists might be hard pressed for business" in Poland nowadays.

Certain chapters of the book deal with individual words (e.g., friend), but most of them discuss various communicative situations. A good example is an answer to the question Co slychac? (How are you [doing]?) "In response to Co slychac? Poles expect a meatier exchange to take place and are more likely than Americans to reveal the less glamorous side of life." Personally, I would add: Poles expect the question to be answered by a longer story of "what has happened to me recently." For them, the American way of greeting, for example: How are you -- Fine. And you?--Good, seems to be too conventional. Poles want to have--as they would say--'real' or 'authentic' contacts, even though such everyday contacts and simple greetings cannot be profound.

Another example is the frequently used expression we should get together sometime which is confused by most Poles with a real proposal or an invitation. A few years ago, when I was a research scholar at the University of London, I was a victim of my Polish approach. An American colleague of mine used to say to me quite often: "We should have a glass of beer together sometime." After several unsuccessful attempts, I nearly forced him to go to have a beer together. He chose a pub closest to the institute in which we worked; we spent there not more than half an hour and probably were both relieved that the social event was over soon. It took me some time to realize that it had never been the intention of my colleague to 'get together' after work. It was enough for him to exchange polite greetings in the library, a part of which was, we should get together sometime.

When a Pole and an American finally get together, another problem appears. Ms. Sokol says that it had been described "in a handbook written by Poles for Poles going to the States to teach and study: 'You may be asked very personal question by someone you have just met.' But don't take offense, the handbook advises, 'No impertinence is intended.'" On the other hand, as Ms. Sokol observes in another chapter, Poles ask questions which may offend Americans: "One day a colleague complimented me on my new coat and in the same breath asked, Ile zapacilas? (How much did you pay?) That made me a little uncomfortable, since Americans consider money private information . . . . Questions about the exact cost of new shoes, pieces of furniture or apartment rents surprise many Americans, but such discussions are not uncommon among Poles."

Another interesting observation discussed in the book is the choice of address term (chapter 15: "Pan, Pani or Hey You"). When I first arrived in the United States I was surprised how common it was to call people by their first names, both at work and in many public places. And this form of address meant nothing special, just seemed to be practical, although in Poland it has always meant to express close friendship or relationship. I was especially annoyed when after ordering a soup and a sandwich in a bar, a cashier asked for my first name and then announced loudly: "Piotr (or: Peter) your lunch is ready." The same thing happened when my barber, whom I visited for the first time, was ready to serve me, or a campus advisor called me, also for the first time, to discuss a cultural program for visiting faculty. In such situations I had always a temptation to protest in the British way, we haven't been introduced, but I knew that my new American 'friends' would not understand my objections. This is not only a linguistic issue, since among the British who are also native speakers of English, such a way of addressing strangers is still not common. Laura Sokol does not attempt to discuss this problem in more detail, she just explains how forms of address are used in Poland. However, in her description of "a ritual of moving to the first name (ty) basis called a Brudershaft," there is a hidden irony, undoubtedly connected with her opinion that Polish society is "hierarchical." On the other hand, in a chapter about "Consuming Chatter," she quotes with some sarcasm her experience in an American restaurant: "It's not unusual to hear a waiter say, 'Hi, I'm Bob, I'll be your waiter tonight.' It would be ridiculous to answer, 'Well, hi there, my name is Laura and, Bob, I'll have the fish please.' Why use first names for a fleeting interaction? Because in the consumer-crazed mind, chatty chummy service equals good. It's probably a blessing that this first name stuff won't work in Polish because of the Pan/Pani address system obligatory in interactions with strangers. I think we're safe here."

Some time ago it was interesting for me to observe a good example of a double standard in this matter. An American colleague of mine (or, should I rather say, friend of mine?), ordered a book in a Polish internet bookstore and received a feedback from them. At the end of the message, some information was included. It was not even addressed to him but to all current and potential customers. This note used the second person singular form ty. My friend felt offended and mentioned ironically that they "had not been introduced." The bookstore apparently imitated expressions used by Americans. When my Polish- American students call me in Polish ty and at the same time I use pan, pani addressing them, or when they sometimes unexpectedly propose, in Polish, przejdzmy na ty, tak jest latwiej (let's move to ty, it's easier), I usually do not express disapproval: this is how they do it in America, even in Polish, I console myself.

The author also describes Polish hospitality and observes how different it is at home and in the hotel industry. "For Poles hospitality is something that takes place at home rather than something extended to strangers. In stores and offices, employees may or may not assist you, depending on their mood or your demeanor. But this is changing, albeit slowly." At home, "Polish hospitality elevates the guest to the status of God for an evening. Gosc w dom, Bóg w dom (Guest in the home, God in the home), the saying goes. American hospitality, on the other hand, seems to exist on a continuum from full-service to self-service." In Poland, hospitality goes with codependency, and accepting and returning favors. The author describes how once after an evening with friends she wanted to go home in a taxi and insisted she did not need a ride. "I was apparently coming off as an obnoxiously independent American." At last, she was driven home. "Americans," she says, "often hesitate before asking or accepting favors from other people. . . Poles, on the other hand, will easily ask friends and family for help and depending on others can be an affirmation of friendship." The author wonders whether "the Polish network of favors [will] become less prevalent" as the service industry grows in Poland.

According to Ms. Sokol, differences also exist in gestures: "Americans relay competence and trust to each other by standing straight with the shoulders back, the chin lifted slightly, a look of brightness in the eyes and a quasi-smile. Hand gestures are used subtly. Americans sit with the torso leaned against the back of the chair and, men especially, extend their legs and drape their arms over chairbacks. . . In a hierarchical society, Poles have a different style; rather than elicit respect, the Polish demeanor conveys it." Poles express deference "with the head slightly lowered, shoulders somewhat rounded and facial expression serious." I think that this analysis of the body language is too stereotypical to be universally accepted. Some observations in this chapter on "Mammal message" are interesting. However, generalizations about self- confident Americans extending their legs and modest Poles "holding their extremities close to the body," are not reliable--the lack of systematic testing limits the credibility of these observations. The same is true about many other topics. Real life comments combined with a scientific jargon do not always sound convincing. The observations themselves are nonetheless of value. Although this is a popular book and it often lacks a profound approach, it may be recommended to all Americans and Poles who want to improve mutual understanding.

The author wishes to thank Zbigniew Stryjecki for recommending the book and lending him a copy, otherwise unavailable.


Back to the September 2000 issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 10/05/00