Cultural Musings

How we interact with strangers – Poles vs. Americans

If you’ve ever been to America you know that people love small talk. Everywhere you go you have to have these little chats about your day and how you are. For Poles, that would be a nightmare. For Americans, it’s actually necessary I would say. So why do we communicate in such different ways? How can you overcome the difference? Read on to find out.

So, recently I was talking with one of my friends here in Poland – a fellow American – and she was expressing just how drained and sad she feels from her daily interactions in Poland, as they’re overall pretty negative – at least from her point of view. And I immediately knew how she felt. It’s hard when you expect positive interactions and only get what you feel is negativity from the people you meet on a daily basis.

How Americans view daily interactions

As Americans, we expect these little interactions and even need the positive feelings we get from them. Maybe we don’t get them as often from the people we actually know? Who knows. But even if the interaction is, let’s say, neutral, like it is mostly here in Poland, for us that’s negative and we can’t shake the feeling. So, if it wasn’t overall positive then the interaction wasn’t successful and I now feel bad because of it. If it was truly negative – the day would be ruined. In Poland, people have no expectations from these interactions – it’s not an important part of their daily lives it seems. If it goes bad, and it often does because people can be rude, that’s just what happens and who cares. A stranger is just a stranger.

So what do these interactions look like and what’s the difference in America and Poland?

Typical daily interactions between Poles – they seem cold initially. They don’t smile much. They get down to business. No real small talk. The interaction is mostly neutral or negative. If it’s negative, people don’t seem to mind much. They don’t seem care at all what people think (how freeing!).

Typical daily interactions between Americans – the initial feeling is warm. People smile at each other and make small talk. The overall interaction is positive and that’s very important. It makes them feel good in general. Also, we want (perhaps even need) people to think we’re nice.

Poles need time

What I’ve noticed after many years here is that actually you can have those nice interactions – they just take a while and you have to form relationships with the people. So, here’s an example. I’ve been going to the same targ (farmer’s market) for years and I know the vendors and people who work there because they’ve been there forever. So I have my places I go every week. Now, after let’s say, 10 years, I can ask them questions, have a little chat, they sometimes ask about my kids, etc. I’d say for Poland that’s successful small talk. But that doesn’t happen when you haven’t put in the time.

What that means to me is that Poles need time to warm up. They need to know who you are and kind of trust you before they put themselves out there and be nice. I think for Poles that kind of “niceness” which Americans expect and just exude naturally is actually kind of a vulnerability for Poles – it’s reserved only for some people – not just anyone who shows their face.

How I’ve changed

Nowadays, I’ve learned to accept this part of living in Poland and, in fact, when I go back to America I find all the small talk to be utterly exhausting. So I’ve switched. And in a way it’s freeing for me. I don’t have to use my energy on all the little chats during the day, but I have that energy to use for people I really care about. As an introvert, that’s huge for me. So whereas Americans really care about strangers and what they think and will expend a good deal of energy on them to get positive feelings from them, Poles just reserve that energy for those they truly know and care about. I think that makes more sense to be honest, especially for those who need to protect their energy and how they use it.

At the store

An example that shows how I’ve changed in this way is recently when I was at the store. I was waiting in line with my son to buy one or two things and a lady came up to me asking if she could go first because she only had one thing. Firstly, in America, that would never happen. They would just go to the back of the line most likely because that’s the right thing to do, but also an American would probably let someone go if they asked because it’s the “nice” thing to do. But I looked at her and was like “nie, ja też mam mało rzeczy” and that was it. I was actually kind of surprised at myself for my reaction… who have I become?

At the doctor

Another example of these interactions is with doctors. When I was pregnant and would go to monthly appointments to my obstetrician, I would always complain that my doctor was so reserved. For me, especially in that kind of situation, it was important to have kind of open, close conversations with my doctor in order to form a relationship with her. For my husband, it was totally the opposite feeling. He believed she was the perfect doctor because she was professional, to the point and just told us what we needed to know. He was right – she was a great doctor – but that wasn’t the point for me. I wanted to feel like I had a relationship with her, which just wasn’t what I was going to get. I was barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. And that shows the difference between what we as Poles and as Americans need from people we interact with. I need someone who I can talk to and laugh with, etc. and my husband just needs someone who does their job and gets to the point while being civil. So, the expectations are wildly different.

In the end, my doctor did start to open up a bit and we could talk to her more in the way I wanted, but it still wasn’t exactly what I was looking for and that’s just something I’ve had to accept. Overall, it has helped me tremendously to remember that limiting my interactions with strangers conserves my energy and I think my friend has come to see it from this point of view as well, but takes time to make it to that point. Perhaps we’re both just recovering Americans?

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  • Reply Staszek Tuleyka 16 March 2024 at 00:00

    Usually, younger and better-educated people are friendlier in their interactions with each other, but being forced to talk to older citizens of this country who often still have a post-communist mentality after so many years (not all of them, fortunately) gives me the creeps. Social interactions in Poland feel like playing a Russian roulette. It’s easy to stumble upon an incredibly amiable person or a total boor, and that’s all in the least expected situations.

    As a person with social anxiety, I prefer to stick around the people I know and avoid strangers as much as I can because it’s hard to predict what reactions I can expect from them, so I let down my guard only when I see they have a positive attitude.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 April 2024 at 13:20

      I feel ya. It is kind of a coin toss, especially in particular environments, e.g. medical institutions. You never really know who you’re going to get. At least in state institutions you know what you’re gonna get and it ain’t positive!

      The great thing about Poland though is when you do stumble upon a boorish person you feel the freedom to call them on it or just kind of treat them the same way, which I like. Because in America you still kind of feel like you have to keep up appearances and treat them with respect and here I’m just like eh don’t talk to me like that.

  • Reply Foo 20 March 2024 at 15:29

    That’s how it is with folks nowadays. I remember when I was a kid in the 1980s, we used to go to the seaside every year and my parents would chat up to total strangers they met in the ośrodek wczasowy (special parties were held to facilitate that), hang out together, go to the beach together, even tell them to watch the young ‘uns.

    Today, you can go to one of these facilities featuring rows of identical summer houses with hundreds of people around and no one gives a damn about you. Even if your kids play with their kids, they won’t come over and introduce themselves. And if you live next to them for a week, you can hear their conversations but never know their names.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 April 2024 at 13:17

      That is unfortunately the general tendency nowadays, but I often find that people still talk to one another, especially if you are the one to make the first move. I’ve kind of gotten in the habit of being the one to start conversations and you quickly realise that people who don’t seem very nice at first glance are actually extremely kind and warm once you get to talking.

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