In America, the way to make people feel comfortable in a social situation is to be friendly and treat them like friends. We wanna be pals. If you have to do something unpleasant like get a new driver’s license, you try as hard as possible to make jokes or at least small talk with the person behind the counter. You laugh together or something to feel like friends and you can even refer to them by their first name without disrespecting them. In fact, it goes along with the “let’s be friends” thing. How about Poles? Do they behave similarly?
Poles don’t treat each other like friends when they meet someone in those kinds of circumstances. In Poland, you should be respectful of someone’s position. People like professors, clerks, and company execs should be addressed appropriately if you are to show respect and get what you need. I learned that the hard way during my time at uni in Poland. In American universities, professors are often very easy going. You don’t need to address them more formally than Mr. or Ms. _______. Or simply “professor”. I never knew how to say “excuse me Mr. Doctor Habilitowany” in English?? How am I supposed to translate that? And, gosh, do I have to say that to you every time I address you? That’s too long.
Perhaps this opposite power scheme, one which is opposite to those found in capitalist societies like the States, where you’re the client so you’re the one with more power in this context, can be explained by history. In the past, when Poland was controlled by the Soviet Union, people like salesclerks and civil servants had great power. Why? Well there was no food on shelves so if you wanted to buy something, you were in the lower position. Same situation in public institutions (but they’re the same everywhere I suppose). You had to be the polite one because you wanted something from them, you weren’t their client. Americans have trouble understanding this because we’ve always had any number of options and could demand good service. That’s why it’s hard for us to come to terms with bad service. But I think this is changing and has even changed since I moved here.
This is a problem for me in other aspects of life as well. I had a lot of trouble addressing my parents-in-law before getting married. I couldn’t bear to call them Pan or Pani because I felt close to them and thought these words would put distance between us. At least that’s how I felt. And of course I couldn’t call them by their first names, although my husband calls my parents by their first names because, well, what else? It was always a problem so I just addressed them in the “you” form like “będziesz” or “czujesz” or whatever and didn’t bother. I’m a foreigner and I can make mistakes. It’s too much sometimes to abide by all the norms.
Generally it’s not as obvious in Poland what to call someone. In America you could just call someone by their first name without offending them, no problem. Even children often call their parents’ friends by name. You can call your boss by name without an issue. And you’d never call someone Pani Ewa or translation: Ms. Ewa. Putting a title before a first name is bizarre in English. It’s either title + last name or just first name by itself. And let me make this clear, it’s not that we’re not polite, we just express our politeness in difference ways. We prefer to ask indirect questions (if you’ve ever had English lessons with me then you understand this craziness) or to raise the intonation of our voices. These are things which can indicate power in the context. So it’s not that power distance doesn’t exist, it just looks different.
On the topic of politeness, people often ask me how to address someone as “you” politely. The answer is “you”. That’s it. It’s not rude, it’s just a fact. You’re “you”. And please, for god’s sake, do not capitalize the “y” in “you”. If you want to be really polite in English, you can say “excuse me, ma’am (or sir), but could you help with me something?” But most of the time it’s not even necessary and sometimes when you try to be polite and say “ma’am” to an older woman, she asks you to please not call her that because it makes her feel old. I know how they feel. I don’t like it when someone my age calls me Pani. Or worse, someone slightly younger. It creeps me out and makes me feel like they think I’m old.
I know this order of things is just how it is here and I’m getting more and more used to it all the time. My landlady practically had to shake me to convince me not to call her Pani. It’s just a habit now I guess. Am I exaggerating though? It’s possible. I tend to inflate things sometimes. Let me know what you think in the comments!