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For Foreigners

10 things to know as a newbie in Poland

Being new in any environment is always a struggle, especially for us introverts who are terrified of making a faux pas (not just me I hope!) What do I wish I had known when I moved to Poland? Ah if only someone had handed me a manual… or a blog… Anyway, part of the fun is discovering the little idiosyncrasies yourself but sometimes it’s good to have a road map to guide you a bit. Here’s what I’d like any newbie to know about Poles: 

1. Poles don’t smile at people on the street. Unless you’re crazed or interested in them. I had to train myself not to do that when I first moved here. This makes people appear sad but they’re really not. People are very warm when you know them personally. In fact when I think about it, why do we smile at everyone? So that strangers think we’re nice people? Kinda weird.

2. Poles claim they don’t talk about money, but then talk about it all the time. When you buy something, move to a new flat, go on vacation – the first question is always about how much it cost. Don’t kid yourselves. For instance, when I bought my house, people asked me constantly how much it was. No biggie for me but don’t claim money is a taboo subject.

3. Poles take their long weekends and holidays very seriously. If you don’t have plans for the upcoming long weekend, it’s such a shame. If you go one vacation for only one week, everyone asks why so short. A normal vacation time in the summer is 2-3 weeks. Shorter than that and it’s just not a vacation.

4. Poles just can’t help but kombinować. This doesn’t translate well in English. When you check the definition in the dictionary, kombinować translates to many things: to be up to no good, to cheat, to con, but in my opinion it’s much softer than that in truth. It’s more like “figure out a solution to a difficult problem”. Since there are a lot of complications in Poland, they have a lot of practice.

5. Poles complain a lot. At first, this makes them seem pessimistic and sad. But mostly this is their way of greeting people and bonding. We talk about good things, they talk about bad things. These often include prices, politics, the weather – that kind of stuff.  Get used to it.

6. Poles are more direct than native English speakers. There’s no need to add please to the end of the every single request. Our requests are like “I was wondering if you could possibly maybe for just a moment help with something really quick, please?” And I think Poles find that exhausting.

7. Poles don’t ask everyone “how are you?” And even they don’t like the question much. I mean not in the way that we want it to be answered. “Fine” with a cheesy smile just isn’t the Polish way. Try it and see how uncomfortable they look. They’d prefer to answer sincerely and that’s cool too but you can’t do that with a salesperson, for example. So just don’t ask. Trust me. Also, in Poland, it’s kind of bad taste to brag about yourself the way we might when we’re asked this question.

8. Poles like westerners. There aren’t a lot of foreigners in Poland and sometimes that causes people to be intolerant. However, if you’re from the west, you can rest assured that you’ll be welcomed in Poland. And then be asked 853475 times why you came here and why you would ever choose to live here (read: wtf is wrong with you?!)

9. Poles tend to exaggerate negatively, whereas English speakers tend to exaggerate positively. We might say something was “amazing”, “incredible”, “the best thing ever”. And Poles might say “masakra”, “tragedia”, “tak źle”.

10. Poles aren’t extremely neighborly. When I first moved into my current flat with my husband, I wanted to say hello and talk to the neighbors telling them who we were and that kind of thing. You know, neighbor stuff. And my husband said “nigdy w zyciu” and “oh, why don’t you just make them a cherry pie too?” So, yeah, don’t even think about it. A little distrust of your neighbors is healthy in Poland because somehow they know everything about you even though you’ve never told them.

So I covered what I think is relevant but perhaps you have a comment of your own? Be sure to share for all to enjoy in the comments!

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36 Comments

  • Reply Julia 16 September 2016 at 12:12

    As polish i find it sad that people don’t smile to each other just randomly on the street :( i think it’d make our society more positive, it’s a really good “custom” to learn from westerners! And also i didn’t know there isn’t any proper definition of “kombinować” in english and i wonder why? English people don’t “kombinują”? 😀
    Great article, i definitely have to show it to my friends! :)

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 16 September 2016 at 12:18

      Julia – I think we can say “figure something out” or “find a way” or “find a loophole” but the fact is that we do “kombinować”, we just don’t talk about it. It’s not exactly something to brag about in America I think, if you know what I mean :)

      • Reply Julia 16 September 2016 at 20:35

        Haha i get it of course :) but i feel like “polskie kombinatorstwo” is like nowhere else in the world 😀 what are your thoughts?

        • Reply Leah Morawiec 17 September 2016 at 08:19

          yeah for sure! I definitely agree with you on that :)

    • Reply Jola 8 October 2016 at 19:38

      That’s right…in past when I was teenager I smiled to everyone on street, but I just heard I’m crazy or I want seduce every guys around me so I had to stop 😀

      Leah.. your site is amazing. My boyfriend is french and he is gonna move here in soonest weeks. He loves Poland much and visits me often but I will show him your blog because it’s good lesson about our country :) thank you :)

  • Reply Ola 16 September 2016 at 12:15

    funny but true 😉 I’m glad for most of things (for example holidays, no smiles on the Street, no questions How are you? without expecting sincer answers) but things like taliking about money (I think that’s why we still feel “na dorobku”) and complaining are our the biggest downsides

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 16 September 2016 at 12:19

      Hey Ola! What’s na dorobku??

      • Reply Ola 16 September 2016 at 12:51

        na dorobku means that we can’t live normally but we still think that we have to earn more that’s why we compare with different people how much they have, and being not satisfied with our earnings etc. (because Poles used to be much poorer but It Has changed recently but we still think we should have more) I have doubts thaat my explaining is clear ;p
        and I think about your list and I would add that People are sometimes not nice for each other without any reason (in shops etc)

        • Reply Leah Morawiec 16 September 2016 at 13:01

          Ohh ok now I get it. That short phrase means all that? :) You’re right. That kind of customer service isn’t always what you’d like it to be :/

  • Reply Maria 16 September 2016 at 12:24

    That’s so true. Point 1. reminds me of a situation when I was picking up foreign friend from the bus station and even though it was our first meeting and it was really crowded, she could easily recognize me, so I asked her: “how did U know it was me?” “-you were the only person smiling” :)

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 16 September 2016 at 13:01

      hahah that’s fantastic!

  • Reply Anna 16 September 2016 at 14:09

    I think, that we should be careful around our neighbours.
    Recently I have seen an article, that a lot of fiscal control from tax office (Urząd Skarbowy) comes from anonymous delations. And the tax office is obliged to look into every one of them. Poles get easily jealous – we compare ourselves with others like Ola said. And for some people it’s hard to believe, that what we own comes from our hard work and not from more illegal or blameworthy ways. Like a delation from “concerned neighbour” that some woman’s husbad is in delegation but she has new jewelery and new furniture. And there is no way that she earned this in the legal way. It doesn’t matter, that her husband may be sending her money.
    Some man has new company and new shiny car? Let’s make a delation so he will stop being satisfied with himself – maybe the tax inspector will find something because every Pole do “kombinować”.

  • Reply Sven 16 September 2016 at 14:24

    Hi,
    you forgot one very important thing: the hospitality. When you are invited to a place and you leave without feeling like a ball and not being able to move because you ate too much – then you never were in real polish hospitality. When you are asked what to drink and you answer: “Water is just fine!” – pew, this costs a lot to convince the people, that “water is just fine”. No coffee, tea, juice, beer, vodka??? i almost feel like offending people that i am fine with that :-)
    Not talking about the masses of food you have to eat and the problems to make somebody understand, that you are full – not hungry any more – exceeded the capacity of belly – physically not capable to put one single kluski or kielbasa into your body.
    In these we should mention polish weddings, were you eat, drink, dance, eat, eat, drink, dance, eat, eat, drink etc…. it is amazing, that in the time between 15:00 and 15:00 you MUST have at least 7 different meals, also meaning having a soup at 3 in the middle of the night.
    Interesting is also how serious they see traditions, like carp for Christmas with the consequences of having at least 12 different dishes. Actually almost no one likes the carp, but everybody loves the tradition :-)
    I simply love being here in Poland :-)

    • Reply Wojtek 16 September 2016 at 16:24

      Carp is quite tasty but it has to be rinsed (alive:) ) at least for a few days (at best for a few weeks) before it gets to the table. It should be transfered from its fish pond to another one with streaming water and with no feed. That’s way it looses its muddy taste (coming from its eating habits – close to the bottom, the more muddy the better) and excess fat. Alas, many fish farmers shorten the process just to sell as much as possible.

      • Reply Leah Morawiec 16 September 2016 at 20:25

        I actually like carp!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 16 September 2016 at 20:23

      Sven! hahaha I loved this comment. You’re so right – I can’t believe I didn’t write about this!! It should be number 11! It’s insane how you can’t refuse food or second helpings. It’s like no I might die if I eat one more bite. I just went to my first Polish wedding and I was completely stunned at the sheer amount of food. I have to say though it was incredible! So much better than American weddings when you leave hungry sometimes!!

      • Reply Wojtek 16 September 2016 at 23:58

        Gość w dom, Bóg w dom – still valid.

  • Reply Piotr 16 September 2016 at 15:32

    I have just opened my laptop to look for a new post in your blog and… You haven`t disappointed me as always. I agree with your every sentence totally. However, some things have paid my attention much more than the other ones. Lack of smiling on the street? I think that it`s nothing weird when we smile to strangers, is it? Life is beautiful but can bring some troubles as well. So why we don`t show any positive emotions at all? I don`t know. If we saw some happy faces around us, everything would be a bit easier at least. Talking about money and complaining about our reality-that`s Poles` national sport unfortunately. If someone earns much more than me has a big house and the most expensive car it must have been something illegal. And almost every stuff must be hopeless, shitty, horrible and so on. I don`t like it! Furthermore, when you praise something or someone your compatriots look at you as you were a moron. They reckon that Polish people can`t do anything well-they have to fuck up everything. And you are right about our kombinowanie. We are really smart and inteligent nation. For example, if our vehicle gets broken, we find a good way to fix it ourselves. What the Westerner would do in this situation? He/She would call a car service probably. Do we like people who come from western Europe? It depends. Some of us think that Anglo-Saxons, Germans, French, Spanish etc. are better than us, have much cash, no troubles and that stuff. I find this thinking a bit childish to be honest. But if you are Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Muslim, our intolerance comes out immediately. I`m a bit untypical because I think that religion, color of skin and nationality don`t make people bad. I agree that some groups cause more problems than other ones (i.e. radical Allah believers in France and Germany) but bad apples are basically everywhere. Does it mean that we should be frightened of foreigners? I don`t think so really. Being careful-yes. Being scared? No way!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 17 September 2016 at 08:29

      Piotr – Glad you enjoyed the post :) What you said is interesting because Poles don’t want to be discriminated against but they’re quite to say something bad about anyone from the East and to praise anyone from the West. That’s a curious thing. So the border of good and evil is in Poland I suppose.

      With praising someone – I had the situation even yesterday where one of my students was said, “Our boss is very successful” and I said “good for him” and all the students were like “oh yeah, uh huh, right” with no smiles on their faces or anything. I think this could be a problem in Polish companies that people not only don’t like their bosses but even don’t respect them for being successful, whereas we would.

  • Reply Natalia 16 September 2016 at 17:45

    I wouldn’t completely agree with number 3 – there is a lot of Poles who may be thinking that, but in fact there is as many people who can’t afford 2-3-weeks long vacation and are happy to go somewhere just for a couple of days. When it comes to long weekends, many people just want to relax at their home, meet with family and friends or, again, they can afford to go by the sea where prices are huge when there is a demand for that kind of vacation

    • Reply Natalia 16 September 2016 at 17:48

      I meant ‘can’t afford to go’ of course :)

  • Reply runawaywithmylove 17 September 2016 at 01:54

    I thought an entry like ,,10 things to know as a Polish newbie abroad” might be very entertaining/useful

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 17 September 2016 at 08:03

      You mean like in America for instance? That could be a good idea!

      • Reply Alina 22 September 2016 at 17:37

        Great post! I’m Polish and I recently moved to America. Would love to read your tips!

  • Reply Seyi 20 September 2016 at 15:35

    Hi Leah, thanks for the heads up. I’m super glad i found your blog before relocating to Wroclaw next week. I definitely have learnt plenty things not to do. I’m also prepared to get plenty stares because this chic right here is super dark skinned.

    • Reply Wojtek 22 September 2016 at 15:39

      Just in case: the words Murzyn (male) and Murzynka (female) are polish terms for dark-skinned people from – originally – Africa and for sure they are not pejorative per se – however it can be used in that way. (But actually I’ve never heard a pejorative phrase with Murzynka.) So hearing such a term don’t get offended too easily.

  • Reply Seyi 26 September 2016 at 15:06

    Thanks Wojtek for the heads up. I can’t start reacting to words til I fully understand them. But i’ve kept this, i’ll just laugh it off.

  • Reply Kamila 26 September 2016 at 16:50

    My grandma keeps asking me “So how much do you earn?” every time I visit her- that’s a few times a year (and I haven’t changed my job since the last time I saw her)- I hate that question. People are too preoccupied with money… and there’s one more thing that came to my mind- people from my family constantly ask me when I ‘m going to have children (even though I think it’s not their business) and imply that it’s high time to have one… Well, Poles tend to be nosey.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 28 September 2016 at 12:59

      ugh that IS obnoxious! No one asks me those questions fortunately but I’ve heard about the children thing from other people. It’s a rude question because they have no idea what our personal situation is – you could, for instance, not be able to have children or something. So it’s just silly.

      • Reply Wojtek 29 September 2016 at 13:45

        And how about being asked (and answered) “How are you? Fine? Wonderfully!” by people you are seeing for the first time in your life and often will never see again? That’s silly:)
        Questions about children touch intimate matters but often are asked by intimate relatives and then express rather their care (OK, maybe old fashioned one) than nosiness.
        On the other hand, such a question is not a standard – it really depends on the family.

  • Reply Nika 6 October 2016 at 23:15

    Great article! :) And I agree with everything. In fact I am also upset that we don’t smile at each other on the streets at list a little bit more. I’ve been to USA recently and it hit me how friendly people were just by smiling and saying hello to me. Also I remember smiling at strangers and saying a lot of “please” in UK :)
    Another thing. Few years ago, when I was living in UK I’ve tried to explaing word “ściemniać” to my friends. You know, when you pretend to be working but not doing it for real and was wonder if there is any adequate word for this in English?

    • Reply Nika 6 October 2016 at 23:16

      just edit to my comment: at least of course , not list 😉

  • Reply Debbie 12 October 2016 at 17:28

    This made me smile so much – I could see my gf in so much of these things! All the things I get exasperated about, e.g. not saying please :) Now it all makes sense! :)

  • Reply Kaye 13 October 2016 at 08:30

    Great list! I need to add though that a big amount of patience is needed especially when dealing with government offices. I also noticed one needs to carry a whole cabinet of documents when dealing with the ‘urząd.’ No documents, we can’t help you.
    I am not generalizing but it seems most government offices work this way.

  • Reply Tomasz 13 October 2016 at 17:04

    Hi Leah, I just came across your blog and agree with many things you said. I grew up in Poland and now live on the outskirts of Orlando. One thing I would add to your list is people in Poland are less likely to maintain an eye contact during conversation. Foreigners should not perceive this as something negative. I am married to an American and it was difficult for my wife to get used to this. In the US maintaining an eye contact is a sign of confidence and is expected, avoiding it is perceived as hiding something or being dishonest. In Poland, on the other hand, when someone keeps looking at you (gapi się) they are either hitting on you or you have something on your face. Many of my co-workers are Chinese. They also avoid the eye contact so we are not alone here.

  • Reply anna 13 January 2017 at 21:09

    “Poles don’t smile at people on the street” – I try to change it myself! It’s great, it’s an easy way to make everyone’s day better (at least for a while). That’s why I smile to people on the street like crazy.

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