Cultural Musings

“Dzień dobry Panie Dyrektorze” A comparison of power distance in Poland and in the US

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!

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  • Reply Piotr 28 July 2016 at 21:12

    I don`t think that using forms mistress or mister in Poland is related to communism. Poles simply have completely other cultural norms than Anglo-Saxons. We say to another people by you when we know them well-we need much more time to make a friendship. Polish people seem to be closed, sometimes too careful. It take them long time to open up and find a good colleague. However, when we start using someone`s name during conversation this means something really important. Australians, Americans, British may be more direct and more open but I don`t know if a friend word in English is so valuable. English speakers have a tendency to call almost everybody in that way! And when you use something too often its gets a bit devaluated, doesn`t it? I don`t generalize really-this is just my point of view. What`s about parents-in-law? In Republic of Poland they are called mum and dad-plain and simple. Why? Because children-in-law treat them like their parents.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 28 July 2016 at 21:18

      Hey Piotr! You’re right about the friend thing for sure. It does seem to be overused, especially from the Polish perspective, although we don’t even think about it so most people aren’t cognizant of it. Perhaps we prefer friend because acquaintance is such a long word? I suppose that’s one of the reasons.

    • Reply Sławomira 19 August 2016 at 13:45

      I’ve read that during period XV-XVIII and also in XIX century the Polish were by foreigners found well-mannered because of these forms and also different ways of being polite. There was special “ukłon polski” only done by children for mother, nobody remembers it now and we don’t know how to do that.

  • Reply Adrianna 28 July 2016 at 22:24

    You know, I’ve always thought that the form “Pani Leah”, you know, title + first name is typical just for Poles. But, surprisingly to me, I found out that we’re not the only ones. I’ve lived in Portugal for a year and they also use this form, “Senhora Leah”. But since you’re under 30, you’d be probably adressed “menina”, which literally means “young lady” or “panienka” and that was super weird to me. So different things are strange for different people, sometimes stuff that is completely normal for other people.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 29 July 2016 at 06:12

      Yeah young lady is totally weird! Parents might say that to their daughters when they’re angry so it’s definitely strange for us 🙂

  • Reply Marta Zielińska 29 July 2016 at 00:27

    I totally get how this might be confusing for native English speakers!! I know from French people that is easier for them to grasp this as this form is present in their language. I guess the best way is to observe and see how both forms (mr/ms and direct one) are used and learn from that. Although I must say that it’s sometimes tricky even for me, a native Pole, to know how to address people more or less my age. Especially if the roles or relation is not yet fully clear.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 29 July 2016 at 06:12

      I guess in English we used to do it too but the last 50 years or so things have changed a lot. But in Poland, I’ve had so many uncomfortable situations like when I said “dzień dobry” to my husband’s friends when meeting them for the first time and everyone laughed. I was so embarrassed but I thought it was just the polite thing to say when you didn’t know someone. Now I realize that’s dropped when it’s someone your age or someone who’s a friend of a friend.

  • Reply Karolina 30 July 2016 at 09:02

    I don’t know if you have came across this but we also call people “ciociu” and “wujku”, even if they are not your family. Expecially kids do that – all of my mum’s friends are ciocie. Also ciocia is what you call your teacher in kindergarden. I think this term makes you feel closer to someone without “disrespecting” them by calling by first name.
    Also, I am 16, kinda tall and mature looking – I’ve been adressed ‘pani’ since I was about 13. I always feel embarassed when that happens.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 13 August 2016 at 22:09

      I know, right? I feel weird when someone a million years older than me calls me “Pani”! And about the ciocia/wujek thing – that’s true. That’s also popular in other cultures as well I think, but not in the States. I think it’s kinda sweet though 🙂

  • Reply Dorota 1 August 2016 at 21:18

    My husband comes from Ukraine and there people don’t use forms like “pani/pan”. When you want to be polite you simply use plural form of you. What’s the point – my husband translated this ukrainian habit in polish and believe me, there were a plenty of situations when the polish considered it as impolite or even rude behaviour.
    P.S. Sorry if I’ve made some mistakes 😉

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 1 August 2016 at 22:23

      Wow that’s really interesting. Just like in America 🙂 So we have similar problems. I don’t see any mistakes!

    • Reply Wojtek 1 September 2016 at 14:28

      People don’t like this form because after 1945 so called people’s government tried to expell words “pan” or “pani” – as it was considered kind of legacy of bad, not democratic (in their opinion) times. It was replaced with “towarzysz” (comrade) in circels of hard-core commies or “obywatel” (citizen) plus a verb in plural form.
      Now, I think, a plural form is only used in the army: an officer can say “pan” to another officer of lower rank, but calling a private or an NCO of lowest rank “pan” is out of place.
      And long before that plural was used commonly between nobility or in a family but always with some title: pan, ojciec, matka. Calling someone in plural without any title was used to stress inferiority or dependency of a called person (as now in the army).
      And generally about different forms in English and Polish: they are simply different – nothing’s better, nothing’s worse.

      • Reply Leah Morawiec 1 September 2016 at 14:31

        Wojtek – yeah I agree that there’s nothing wrong with it. Just different and you have to accept it. The differences are always just interesting to me which is why I like to feature them and start a discussion. But the plural form… that’s interesting. Never heard of that. Can you give me an example?

        • Reply Wojtek 1 September 2016 at 14:52

          Check this:;13387.html . And this: .

          In Polish but – to be honest – it should be a piece of cake for you, shouldn’t? 🙂 (Generally, it’s a good website about nuances of our language.)

          • Leah Morawiec 1 September 2016 at 14:57

            haha yeah right! nothing involving Polish is a piece of cake for me sadly :/

          • Wojtek 1 September 2016 at 15:27

            I’m not sure if it could be really helpful but there’s piece of advice (regarding more vocabulary and reading texts than learning grammar): remember that – in my opinion, no statistical proof for that – Polish compared to English has much more word families or at least more words grouped in families. Check this out: mouth and oral versus usta and ustny. So seeing a written word you can be almost sure that somewhere and somewhen you come across its relative.

  • Reply Asia 2 August 2016 at 00:34

    Dear Leah.
    I’ve got to say, I’ve found your blog this evening and over the past few hours I’ve read most of your posts. I really love the way you’ve written about your experiences in Poland.
    I am from Poland, near Warsaw, but have lived in England since I was 10, and I’m about to turn 20, so my experiences in Poland (even though I do go back every year) were definitely very different from what you experience as an adult, and additionally a foreigner.
    I wanted to add that the way you’ve been writing is just beautiful, even when commenting on things you don’t like it’s easy to see you’re not coming from a negative point of view.
    I really enjoyed this post, and can’t wait to read more in the future! 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 2 August 2016 at 06:06

      Hey Asia! Thanks so much for reading and for the amazing compliment 🙂 I’m glad it shows that I’m not actually coming from a negative point of view – I love Poland and it’s people and I also like telling it like it is. My hope is that it never offends anyone. I wonder what it’s like for you in England?

      • Reply Asia 2 August 2016 at 23:30

        Living in England is what’s normal to me since I have spent so much time here, I could not imagine living in Poland again. However because the majority of my close family do live here, we do keep Polish traditions such as Christmas or Easter very Polish. On the other hand, the majority of my friends are English.
        If I ever do get a British citizenship, I definitely think I would still consider myself to be Polish at heart. I find many people tell me I’m very levelheaded and logical, and I think that comes from my Polish upbringing and early Polish education rather than my later British life.
        Seems like I’m writing you essays every time, but I find it difficult to be concise 🙂

  • Reply Lincoln Huges 24 August 2016 at 02:52

    every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and future Poland’s low score of 38 in this dimension means that it is more normative than pragmatic. People in such societies have a strong concern with establishing the absolute Truth; they are normative in their thinking. They exhibit great respect for traditions, a relatively small propensity to save for the future, and a focus on achieving quick results.

  • Reply Dominika S 16 September 2016 at 15:17

    It always bothers me that people call me Pani in formal or even informal situations it’s weird especially that I’m a teen. I don’t get it they say “Przepraszam pani(ą) czy mogłaby pani mi pomóc?” the Pani is so unnecessary and makes me kinda uncomfortable.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 17 September 2016 at 14:17

      Pani twice in one sentence? *cringe*

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