Cultural Musings, Poland

Are we so different? Poles vs. Americans

Poles and Americans aren’t so different. All in all people are similar, especially young people, but there are some differences in culture which can’t be ignored. Growing up in the States, we’re encouraged to embrace our individualism. This is evident in how we name our children. We invent names for them or simply use names of common objects. Rain, Pilot, Apple, whatever. Poles, however, stick to Polish names. If you use an English name, it’s a bit ridiculous. It’s better to have a normal name like everyone else than to stand out in the crowd. This is just one of the many ways in which our cultures differ.

Americans are less formal, but Poles are more genuine. 
Americans and Brits are sometimes so indirect that it’s cringe-worthy. If you’ve ever heard “excuse me, but would it be possible if I could maybe just a little bit…”, you know what I’m talking about. Poles get to the point faster. I don’t think it’s a problem but sometimes it can be uncomfortable in situations like e.g. I get a text that just says “ok”. With Americans, if you send a message like that, you know someone is pissed. It should be more like, “ok sure no problem”. That’s us agreeing not once, but 3 times for good measure. In Poland, they’re just agreeing. Once is enough I guess? This also proves our tendency to exaggerate. Nothing is good, everything is great/fantastic/spectacular. In Poland, ok means just that. In our house we regularly ask each other, “Polish ok or American ok?” Meaning, it is good (Polish ok) or just eh (American ok). Meaning the statement, “you look ok”, can have two quite different meanings depending on which of us says it.

Paradoxically, we’re more direct when it comes to addressing people. Everyone is addressed as “you” or by first name. In Poland, if you don’t know someone or have some power distance, you have to address someone as sir or ma’am (pan or pani). For me this puts distance between people. I can call someone much, much older than me or who I don’t know Pani but I couldn’t call my parents-in-law sir or ma’am. I feel too close to them. On the other hand, my husband called my parents by their first names from the very beginning because that’s just normal.

Americans are more friendly, but Poles are more hospitable. 
Everyone knows the American stereotype. Silly Americans with smiles plastered on their faces. That may be true but we have fewer barriers between people, making daily life not only more comfortable but more bearable. We meet someone and we want to have a good rapport immediately. Poles need a little time to warm up, which I see time and time again during my lessons. The first ones are usually pretty uncomfortable, people are very nervous and don’t really want to open up. After you know each other for a little while, it usually changes completely. I think generally Poles are a little wary or distrusting of others. Something left over from the past. In reality, if you need something from an American, they’re probably nowhere to be found. Why? Too inconvenient. Need something from a Pole? They help you, make you dinner, feed you cake and give you a place to sleep. And offer you a drink.

Americans are arrogant, Poles are self-deprecating. 
This is both apparent at the individual and national levels. Living in the States, you always hear that America is the best country in the world. People are patriotic to the extreme. Just look at July 4th – flags everywhere, people wearing red/white/blue clothing, BBQs. It’s a lot of fun. On November 11, Polish independence day, people don’t really celebrate. There are flags, but that’s about it. We’re proud of our country despite the fact that we do some very embarrassing things, and Poles seem to be ashamed although they have a lot of to proud of. As one of my students once said, “I’d say Poland is the worst country in the world before I said it was the best.” Brutal. People’s general opinions: Bureaucracy? Only in our sick country. See someone doing something foolish? Stupid Poles. Aggressive drivers? Poles can’t drive. My assessment? There are stupid people everywhere. It has nothing to do with nationality. Bureaucracy is sick everywhere, not only in Poland. No matter how much I complain, I know some things would be even harder if I lived in America.

Interestingly enough this applies to individuals as well. We are very willing to talk about ourselves and our accomplishments. This is exemplified in our answers to “how are you?” which are often things like “good… I just got a promotion” or “things are going well… I just bought a car”. Is it bragging or just telling the truth? We are happy to hear about good things in our friends’ lives, so I see nothing wrong with it. Oppositely, in Poland, it’s better not to say such things because people might be jealous.

Another example – once I went to a English teachers’ conference here in Poland with some Americans and we went to some lectures which required participation. The lecturer asked for some volunteers and all the Americans’ hands shot up but she still needed a few more volunteers and the lady literally had to pull the Poles onto the stage. For the Americans, it was no problem to put themselves out there – to differentiate themselves from others – but the Poles were extremely reluctant to do so. I see this in my lessons about personality. When I ask “what are you good at” or “which positive personality traits describe you?”, you can hear crickets chirping.

For me these are the biggest differences between our cultures, personality-wise of course. I’m not trying to say here that one is better or worse, just different. As an expat, these are the things which I notice most and which can sometimes be hard to deal with, but overall aren’t so bad.

Read more on the blog about Poland !

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43 Comments

  • Reply Wiktor 10 November 2015 at 23:26

    It’s always very interesting to hear such comparison from someone outside. 🙂
    If I were to put my part in this, I would say the most prominent difference between western countries and countries that were under the influence of USSR is the way of dealing with the law. In Poland (and other countries of Western Europe) you can see that weird kind of schizophrenia where there is written law and there is reality with law-with-some-less-important-parts-of-it. I think it has its roots in communism when corruption and using connections “under the table” was something so common people got used to it as a normal part of existing. Something is not totally legal or in accordance with certain procedures, but hey, everybody does that. A good example is cheating in classes. In USA or UK, to my best knowledge, it is strictly forbidden. And you mean it. Whereas in Poland it is forbidden, but not really punished, unless repeated many times despite warnings. Same with small bribes for ticket control in city transport which are given at least once by almost everyone.

    • Reply Wiktor 10 November 2015 at 23:27

      *and other countries of EASTERN Europe of course

    • Reply Leah Southers 11 November 2015 at 10:13

      Wiktor – Hah the cheating thing – I can’t believe I didn’t think about that. When I studied in Poland, I was so surprised that in university my classmates were cheating on exams. ok we also cheat in America in high school but in university? No way. The consequences were too high. You could have been kicked out of school for it! And even to cheat in high school you had to be very clever. Here, my classmates were just opening their books or checking answers on their phones. Madness!

  • Reply Maria 10 November 2015 at 23:31

    I totally agree with you. Never been to America but I’m aware that there are huge differences between ‘polish typical personality’ and ‘american’. I think you listed all the differences I had in my mind before reading this post. But… there’s one thing that is not in your post! 😛 Ok, I may agree that we say to our parents-in-law “Pani, Pan” but only before marriage. After marriage we call our mother-in-law simply “mother” (mama) and father-in-law (tata). And I suppose it’s something unique (i.e. in other countries it’s probably like in US – you call them by name). But in Poland I think it would be very offensive to call your mother-in-law by first name. Like very offensive :P.
    I could also mention another thing – in Poland we don’t really like our families (I could compare to what you said – we don’t like ourselves, we don’t say good things about us or our country). I mean, people usually complain about family members when it comes to some meetings. E.g. young people don’t like to spend time with older members of family, etc. OF COURSE – it’s very general :D. Every polish family is lovely and we know that 😀 but I hope you know what I mean. I’m writing about this because I noticed that during my 7.5-month stay in Portugal where family is very important. So that people emphasize the importance of family meetings, they enjoy them, old and young people are having fun together. Whereas in Poland I think it’s sometimes more like ‘kids world’ and ‘adults world’ and kids e.g. are supposed to go to bed early and be polite and not to make problems, you know. And in Portugal there is no problem if you go to the bar with small kids, parents are taking their kids everywhere even if it’s late (polish late 😀 is not portuguese late :D). And as you probably already know – in PL, if someone took his kid to some place (where for polish people it’s supposed to be ‘adults’ place), other people would start complaining about parents, how irreponsible they are and that mother’s place is at home with kid :P. But again, it’s very general.

    • Reply Ola 11 November 2015 at 10:03

      Maria…. I call my parents-in-law by their names 😛 and I think it’s not offensive. It would be weird for me to call them “mum”, “pap”. It depends on relationships within the family. I think I have only one mother and father so it’s very artificial to call parents-in-law like that. But If you like, it’s nice, but not necessary even in Poland.

      • Reply Leah Southers 11 November 2015 at 10:20

        Ola – that’s interesting. I didn’t know your family was so open 🙂 I don’t have any problem calling my in-laws mama and tata because it’s in a different language but mom and dad would be a little weird.

        • Reply Michael 15 December 2015 at 16:06

          Becouse it is weird;) You have got only your own mother or father. Most of my friends call parents-in-law by their names, it is normal in Poland. The only exception I know is my brother. His wife is calling to our parents by name but he is calling to her parents by mama, tata, but they are from little village (they are old-fashined)

    • Reply Leah Southers 11 November 2015 at 10:18

      Maria – My sister-in-law also told me that it would be offensive to call my parents-in-law by their first names which is why I never did it. She said she’d love to see their faces when I did it – so I figured it was off-limits.

      Your comment about families is interesting to me. I think it’s pretty much the same in the States. You respect your elders and you listen to them but you don’t really have fun with them. There is a definite division. You don’t really make jokes with them and that kind of thing. That’s why I always loved spending time with my friends from hispanic cultures, where family life is more loose and open. Portugal must be similar in that way. Thanks so much for your thoughts!

      • Reply Karolina 15 November 2015 at 16:52

        I think that family relations depends more on the family itself, rather than the nationality 🙂
        I am Pole and when we have family reunion there is a lot of fun, we talk on very different topics and children are always with us, sometimes till late hours either 🙂

        • Reply Leah Southers 15 November 2015 at 21:01

          Karolina,

          Yeah for sure you’re right. Our family is quite similar!

  • Reply Asia 12 November 2015 at 15:24

    I also see a problem with addressing people, but as I’m Pole I think that our way is better. 😉 I couldn’t imagine saying “ty” to a stranger, but sometimes I feel strange when someone says to me “pani” (I’m only 20! I’m not “madam”!). Still I prefer more distance.
    Maybe the most difficult thing is that our languages cannot be translated directly – I feel that “you” and “ty” have a bit different meaning… It’s a big problem when I translate a fan-fiction from English – sometimes it’s really hard to decide when “you” means “ty” and when “pan” or something like that (e.g. student is shouting at his teacher – what form does he use?).
    I like reading your thoughts about Poland, keep writing. 🙂

    • Reply Leah Southers 12 November 2015 at 17:18

      Asia – that’s really cool that you translate fan-fiction! what kind? well, in fact, you’re right. “ty” and “you” have different connotations. there’s no other option than “you” in English, even if a student is referring to his teacher. we wouldn’t say “sir” because that would be odd – too formal by today’s standards. So I’d say this, if in Polish you’d say “Pan” then you should translate it that way. You have to think about it in the Polish context because in the American context saying “you” to your teacher isn’t rude, it’s just normal.

      Thanks for your thoughts and kind words! 🙂

      • Reply Asia 17 November 2015 at 14:08

        I translate Harry Potter fan-fiction, but don’t publish it in Internet (yet). But also when I read in English I sometimes wonder “how to say it in Polish”, and the “you” thing can be a little unnerving then.
        I came to the conclusion that Polish people generalise “distant” people (we say “Pan/Pani” to basically every unknown/older/more respectable person) and English speakers have the same thing with addresing “closer” people (“you” to friend, teacher, neighbour but also to unknown person). So “you” is less – I don’t know how to say – maybe: personalised than “ty”. You don’t need to ask permission to say “you”, but “ty” can be offensive without some kind of bruderszaft.
        I don’t know if that makes sense, just some loose thoughts of mine. 😉

  • Reply Claudia 19 November 2015 at 13:08

    Ohh I really enjoy your blog! you can write more and more often, this is my best way to learn English 🙂

    • Reply Leah Southers 19 November 2015 at 13:21

      Claudia — I’m so glad that you’re enjoying it 🙂 I promise I will write more! New post coming up soon!

  • Reply Pata 22 November 2015 at 14:45

    I live in Poland so I was always interested how is it in America, can’t wait to read more! And I like when you compare Poland and America 🙂

  • Reply Piotr 15 December 2015 at 15:02

    Now, a bit of natural Polish criticism. An expat, not “a” expat.
    BTW, thanks for the article. I am a big fun of observation of cultural differences,

    • Reply Leah Southers 15 December 2015 at 15:27

      oh good god thank you for pointing that out.

    • Reply o'rety 18 December 2015 at 01:05

      @Piotr: there’s no surer way to make an ass of oneself than to point a mistake to someone in one sentence and then make one oneself in the next. Not “fun” but “fan” and “of observation of cultural differences” is more than a bit cumbersome. Also “I am a big fun of” (“jestem wielkim fanem”) is a lot like “for example” – mentioned by Leah in the other blog post – a language structure used more by the Polish speaking English than by native speakers themselves. “I like observing cultural differences a lot” would be a better way to put it.

  • Reply Agnieszka 15 December 2015 at 15:09

    I can say that it’s sometimes tiring to deal with English people (no offence). You have to think too much about what is polite to say or do and what is not 😀 I think that all people in Eastern Europe are more like Poles – we are much more straightforward and have different sense of humour.

    • Reply Leah Southers 15 December 2015 at 15:28

      Agnieszka – I understand you. I have the same problem now when I communicate with Americans because I’m rather used to communicating with Poles now. It’s easier just to drop the pretences.

  • Reply Blazej 15 December 2015 at 18:10

    We do like to complain at our country – that’s true, it’s (complaining) in our nature. But it doesn’t mean we’re ashamed of Poland. Not at all! Majority of Poles are proud of our country’s history and of being Pole.

    • Reply Leah Southers 15 December 2015 at 18:18

      Well good! You ought to be. Lots to be proud of!

  • Reply Kamil 15 December 2015 at 18:58

    About the issue with using ‘you’ vs. ‘Sir/Madam’: I would say we have at least one additional, semi-formal, way of adressing someone. We often use form equivalent to ‘Sir/Madam [first name]’. This form is mostly when adressing person you don’t know too well, or is your senior

  • Reply Kamil 15 December 2015 at 18:59

    Mostly used*

  • Reply Artur 15 December 2015 at 19:50

    The one about self-deprecation is so very true.

  • Reply Wojtek 15 December 2015 at 22:35

    This article is OK 😉

    • Reply Leah Southers 16 December 2015 at 08:47

      hehe 🙂 Polish I hope

  • Reply Konrad 16 December 2015 at 02:04

    Leah, this is a really awesome blog! I am a Pole living in the US for over 10 years now and couldn’t agree more with your findings. You hit the jackpot stating that Americans are arrogant, but at the same time very friendly as well as Poles being self-deprecating or to say even more, self-conscious. It goes without saying that’s the result of big cultural differences. American is more of a low context culture, whereas Polish is on the higher context side. As a side note, here is an interesting comparison about Polish vs normal fiend: http://matadornetwork.com/life/12-differences-normal-friend-polish-friend/ Curious to see what you think about it 🙂

    • Reply Leah Southers 16 December 2015 at 08:46

      oh that link is great. i’ve read her other posts before as well and i think they’re fantastic. the difference between friend in english and in polish is a real problem – translating “kolega” into English, for instance. This one was my favorite I think:

      A normal friend tells you a lot about his personal life within the first few hours of meeting him for the first time.
      A Polish friend will keep his secrets for as long as he can and only reveal them during a drunken night. You will never speak of them again.

  • Reply Papuga z Ameryki 16 December 2015 at 04:45

    Well, well well…
    I wish I had read that kind of article before I’ve moved to the US…. it could have saved me at least 2 years of surprises and some disappointments 😉

    The thing with naming children was a surprise but only for a short time. Today, among our friends we have Pepper, Sienna or Red. Unfortunately despite the fact I don’t hear anything weird in these names any more, I didn’t dear to name my daughter, (who was born in USA) American way. Polish kids are pretty cruel and I didn’t want to make it easier for them to bully my child, who will eventually end up in Polish school…

    Calling everyone by first name or „you” is so welcoming and comforting for a new immigrant but on the other hand so confusing … when everyone pretends to be a friend and at the same time doesn’t care what do you want to answer for their „How are you?”. It took me over a year to understand some rules 😉

    BTW. don’t get me wrong, I love American „How are you” 😉 do you speak/read Polish? here is my article How are you ? I don’t care:

    I’m full of envy when it comes to American patriotism and love to the national symbols as flag or anthem. Every time I’m in a Polish Embassy (for example because of 11.11) and I hear Poles muttering under their breath national anthem I’m so ashame, because a minute later we usually let sing our American guests their own and guess what… they always know how to do it with the smile on their face and appreciation.

    BTW. I’m Emilia, nice to meet you. Let’s say there was a swap between us 😉 I’m a Pole writing about the US – most of the time in a positive way 😉 Where do you live and how long you’re going to stay in Poland?

    • Reply Leah Southers 16 December 2015 at 08:50

      Hi Emilia! My favorite Polish girl’s name 🙂 Glad to meet you. Can’t wait to start reading your blog. That’ll be a treat for sure. I can’t wait to see what you say about my people. Hope it’s not too terrible and your experience has been a good one 🙂 I do speak/read Polish but it could always be better. it’ll be a great lesson for me to read your blog.

      Pepper is an amazing name by the way, but Red? Sounds like a redneck a little bit 🙂

  • Reply Carmen 5 January 2016 at 21:03

    As an American that has been living in Poland for the past 6 years, I totally agree with most of the info on this blog! At least I don’t feel like such a lone wolf anymore. Thanks :DDD

    • Reply Leah Southers 5 January 2016 at 22:49

      Hi Carmen! So nice to hear from a fellow American 🙂 You gotta comment more often so we can commiserate!!

  • Reply Amerykanka w polskim świecie - wywiad z Leah 15 March 2016 at 02:59

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  • Reply Sławomira 23 March 2016 at 15:11

    About calling people “pan” or “pani” I can say – now it’s ok (Polish ok 🙂 ). Some time ago I’ve read a book about history of normal life in Poland and Europe. In reneissance and baroque our customs were described as a very kind and complicated. We had a special way of nodding. Also different savoire-vivre elements were more sophisticated at Poland what was found great by foreigners.

    It’s the first time I see word “Poles” instead of “Polish” and don’t find it insulting. Normally I translated Poles=polactwo (I think you know what I mean) and the Polish=Polacy.

  • Reply Konsta 31 March 2016 at 13:28

    Very true comparism between Poles and Americans.
    Interesting blog , btw, keep on posting !

  • Reply Adrian 15 April 2016 at 21:33

    “[…] I know some things would be even harder if I lived in America”

    Interesting… Could you please elaborate?

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 16 April 2016 at 09:21

      Bureaucracy could be more difficult. For instance getting my husband a green card would take much more time than getting me one here. Or there were too many hoops to jump through for us to get married there.

      • Reply Adrian 17 April 2016 at 00:53

        How about getting a travel visa for your spouse and get married (again :D) in the US?

        • Reply Leah Morawiec 17 April 2016 at 09:59

          Actually you can’t get married on a travel visa. It’s illegal. You have to get a fiance visa but anyway we’re already married so it wouldn’t change much 🙂

  • Reply Nika 25 January 2019 at 19:47

    Hello 🙂 I’m so glad I found your blog 🙂 I’ve already read a couple of your posts and I’ll be keep reading 😉 I thought I knew how Americans think, but I guess I was wrong 🙂 The “ok” thing really suprised me… I never would have thought that when I text someone “ok” it’s not enough and it’s gonna be perceived as a little bit rude. It’s good to know, I’m not gonna make that mistake again 😉

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 4 February 2019 at 14:28

      Everyone is always so surprised by the “ok” thing! I think it’s a really difference between us and I’m constantly asking people what they actually mean by “ok” 🙂

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