By Ken, Teacher in Warsaw, Poland
What is the thing that you like most about Polish culture so far?
The lack of meaningless small talk! When Polish people ask you how you are doing, how you are feeling, what you’ve been up to, they GENUINELY mean it. It’s not just to be polite, they are actually interested in your wellbeing and also your life, whereas when I lived in the UK I’d get at least 30 people asking me on a Monday morning how my weekend was, and a lot of them couldn’t have cared less (that’s not to say EVERYONE was like that, most were genuine!!)
Have you been in any awkward situations where you have done something culturally inappropriate?
Honestly? Not really. Before I came to Poland I read up on what not to do and their culture, so I was well prepared! I would recommend everyone do this. A common one is coming to Poland and going round supermarkets or stores saying that everything is cheap. Don’t do this! Wages in Poland aren’t that high and things aren’t cheap for the average Polish person, especially now!
What part of Polish culture has shocked you the most?
They have name days! This is similar to a birthday, but instead they have a special day where they celebrate their name. Some names even have multiple name days, but I’ve been told that in such cases they won’t celebrate every single name day.
Also on Christmas Eve they eat a special supper (The Wigilia supper) consisting of fish and Polish foods and NO MEAT. The thought of not eating meat at Xmas is a very foreign notion to me! However, apparently they have meat on Xmas day.
Are there many similarities between Polish culture and the culture of the country you come from?
Yes, a lot! So to briefly tell you about my background, I was born in Scotland and lived there for a good part of my life. Scots, like the Poles, are very patriotic about their country however we complain a LOT especially about the weather. Also we have a very “healthy” drinking culture. In Scotland it’s all about whisky, and in Poland it’s all about Vodka. Oh and we all think our national football team is rubbish! Also in my opinion I’d say that Scots and Poles are as pessimistic as each other.
Has it been difficult adjusting to a different culture?
Personally for me, no. In previous jobs I’ve worked with a lot of Poles and European people so I was already used to their quirks and behaviours. I have also travelled and lived in other countries so I am quite accustomed to having to settle in different environments. I’ve not had any trouble and I’ve found everyone helpful and respectful.
It’s fairly easy to get round the city and Poles tend to keep to themselves so they won’t bother you.
What is the one thing you would tell someone about Polish culture who is coming for the first time?
Don’t expect people(especially Polish men) to politely smile at you and to randomly start conversations with you, especially in shops and supermarkets!
Have you been speaking any Polish?
Tak, ale jest bardzo trudne! (Yes, but it’s very difficult!) Most Poles understand this, so they’ll go easy on you. It does take a LONG time to learn it, and then there’s actually pronouncing the words which is a completely different battle in itself. Practice, makes perfect. I’m still trying to pronounce the popular metro station “świętokrzyska”!
Are you finding it easy or difficult to get by without being fluent, and why?
Really easy. Everyone at the school I teach at speaks English and also if I need to get anything done at a government office there is at least one person who speaks decent and understandable English. And if all else fails I use gestures or Google Translate. But don’t rely on Google translate and try to learn the language!!
Living in Warsaw is very easy without speaking Polish although I’ve heard that in smaller towns and cities it wouldn’t be nearly as easy. If you go out at the weekend and go to bars or restaurants almost everyone will speak simple English.