Cultural Musings

One thing that makes Poles really uncomfortable.

There are plenty of taboo topics in Poland that you should probably avoid in casual conversation, but you don’t bring those topics up on a daily basis. This is one thing you might not even think about. It’s something you probably do without thinking. For sure you think it’s polite and even necessary. Read on to find out what it is you’re doing that makes Poles cringe.

It’s simple. Ask them the question “how are you?” 

And wait for them to fidget awkwardly, trying to find words to answer what they think is such a complex question. 

My students ask me all the time how they’re supposed to answer “how are you” and why the hell we ask it all the time. My answer is always that it’s just a greeting. If it’s your friend or colleague, it’s like saying hello and inviting someone to talk to you. If it’s at a store, it’s just a way to be nice and make you feel welcome. You don’t necessarily have to answer the question even. Let’s look at some examples. 

At a store one of the employees says to you “Hi, how are ya today?” and a totally appropriate answer would be “hello, fine thanks”, or “good, thanks, you?” or even just “hello” and a smile. 

If someone you actually know asks you “how are you?” then it’s different. This is an invitation to converse and in that case you have more options. You can say “I’m doing well, thanks. I just found out that I got the job I wanted” or maybe something negative like “Eh, today is not the best day. I have a lot going on and I’m pretty stressed.” Your response doesn’t necessary have to be positive with people you know, but with strangers it’s the better option, more comfortable. 

Nowadays, when I visit my family in America, it takes me some time to re-adjust to the the millions of how are yous and little chit-chats with strangers. After a few days I get back into the swing of things and it’s normal again. If you visit America or spend time with English speakers and this is making you uncomfortable, just fake it till you make it. It’s something you have to deal with. And maybe even one day you’ll learn to like it 🙂 

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  • Reply Jake 13 March 2019 at 06:25

    I feel like this could be an equally funny post in reverse.

    “Jedna rzecz co naprawde niepokoi Amerkynow”

    “Istnieje duzo tematow co budzi niepokoj w Amerykaninach, ale chyba najlatwiej mozna doprowadzic ich do granicy paniki pytajac ‘Jak sie masz?’

    Amerykanin jest nieprzygotowany na to pytanie. Czy ma odpowiedziec po swojemu, ze wszystko dobrze, i w taki sposob postawic bariere miedzy nim a Polakiem, ktory sie czuje obrazony ze gosc jemu nie ufa? Czy ma odpowiedziec w polskim stylu,wspominajac wszystko co zlego co sie stalo na swiecie od ostatniego spotkania – i w taki sposob nadziac sie na rownie wyczerpujaca odpowiedz od Polaka? Dla Polakow to rytual przetrzymania takie odpowiedzi; tak jak Rusek sie chwali ile moze wypic, czy Arab sie chwali jak wygodnie jemu na sloncu w 45 stopni, to tak Polak jest dumny ze moze wytrzymac kazda odpowiedz na pytanie ‘jak sie masz?’ Ale biedny Amerykanin? Czy on ma pic wodke z Rosjanami, isc w pustynie z Arabami, i odpowiadac Polakom jak on sie ma, po Polsku?”

  • Reply Rafal 3 August 2019 at 12:31

    I think “how are you?” is wrongly translated to “jak się masz?”. It should be translated to “cześć”, and the answer, “I’m fine, thanks, and you?” should also be translated to “cześć”.

    As I sat in a pub one day, a guy came in. He aprroached the barmaid and said “jak się masz?” in perfect Polish with no accent at all. My first authomatic thoughts were: they know each other very (he didnt say “Pani”), very (he even didn’t say “cześć”, which sometimes can be ommited) well and probably they have experienced some strange events yesterday, like, i don’t know, heavy drinking or some violence or something like that. And this very close friend is asking her how she feels today.

    The barmaid rose her eyebrow and started to stare at him speachless trying to recognize him. (“Who is he? When and where did we met each other? Is something wrong with me?”). After a few seconds of intensive silence, he decided to continue in English, probably trying to find out why his “Polish language in less than 10 days” didn’t mention that the standard Polish response to “how are you?” is a few seconds of awkward silence.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 7 September 2019 at 14:05

      Hahaha I love this so much. Yeah… that shit doesn’t fly in Poland. That’s why speech acts are so essential in speaking a language. You have to know what kinds of things are acceptable in speech, not just how to translate something directly!

    • Reply Gizmo 29 May 2020 at 14:19

      “How are you?” = “Jak się masz?” = “siema”

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