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.
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