Cultural Musings

When to use Pan and Pani

You might have noticed that people in Poland are pretty formal with strangers. There are a lot of “Pans” and “Panis”, so “Sir” and “Ma’am”, being thrown around, which I often find just exhausting. It can be hard to know how this works, but how you address someone in Poland usually depends on how well you know someone, age difference and power distance. So how do you know when to call someone Pan or Pani? I’ll explain it in detail in this post.

As is probably obvious from most of my posts, I think about these cultural nuisances a lot – probably overthink them. In America, there isn’t much power distance between people, so you can mostly call everyone “you”. Not in Poland. Typically, you need to use Pan or Pani when referring to those people in a sentence. But it’s always clear when to use those phrases and when not to.

Sometimes, I ask my husband what to do in certain situations and he just shrugs. What if someone is younger than you but you don’t know them? Do you use Pan/Pani? Shrug. What if you’ve met someone once before but you’re not friends? Do you use Pan/Pani? Again, shrug. But, ok, that’s because he just knows what to do without actually having to think about it. I have to mull it over and over before actually doing something, so as not to commit some awful faux pas. I hope you’re in the same boat and I’m not alone!

Complete strangers

Often, I find myself having to say Pani a million times in one sentence. “Jeżeli chciałaby Pani mieć lekcje z nim, proszę mi Pani napisać o której ma Pani czas”, for example. It makes the sentence feel so bulky. My life would be so much easier if I could just cut out all those Panis. But I can’t! I talk to clients on the phone or send them emails every day, so I can’t avoid it.

Power distance

I have an issue with this sometimes, as it feels super weird and artificial for me to call the director of my son’s school Pani – especially considering we’re the same age. I understand that she kinda sees us as clients, so she calls me Pani, and she’s the director, so I need to show some respect. I don’t like it. If she were older it wouldn’t be an issue at all. So, generally, with people in positions of power, you’ve got to use Pan and Pani, unless they indicate otherwise, I’d say. For more information on power distance in Poland, check out my post on that exact subject here. It goes much more in-depth on the issue of titles in Poland.

People who are older than you

When I first starting dating my husband, I had to grapple with the fact that in Poland people say “Pan” and “Pani” to their partners’ parents – before marriage, that is. After marriage it’s common to called them “mama” and “tata”, as you would your own parents. I just couldn’t do it. I knew them really well and I felt close to them, so calling them “Pan” and “Pani” felt so cold, like something you would say to a stranger. Generally, I just avoided calling them anything so as not to have to say those formal things to them, and, happily, nowadays we’re married, so I don’t have to bother. But UGH why?! My husband has always called my parents by their names, married or not. His life is so much easier than mine 😩 But this is at least an easy rule to follow – always use Pan and Pani with older people – neighbors, etc.

People your age

But what about people in your age group? This can be tough. I think it depends on the setting. If you’re in a casual setting, like a party or just a small get-together with people your age, where the atmosphere is friendly more or less – for sure you don’t use Pan/Pani. That would be a quick way to get laughed at. But, if you’re, let’s say, in a store or in a restaurant, a place where there’s power distance between client and employee, e.g., then I’d stick with it, even if the person is your age or younger. I’d add that in places where you probably wouldn’t make friends with someone like, e.g., the playground – use it. You’re still strangers even though it’s a casual setting.

When you just aren’t sure

Then there are situations where you just don’t know wtf to say. I have this issues sometimes. For example, we have a neighbor who is quite a lot older than me – she’s got kids my age – but she’s cool, so we talk rather more like friends and the power distance just isn’t there. At first, I was calling her Pani and then she asked me not to, and I had such a hard time stopping. What’s with that? It’s a habit! An annoying one. Same with my previous landlady. There’s the power distance there – she was older than me as well – but she was cool and easy going and didn’t want me calling her Pani. Again, it took me a while to stop saying it!

Essentially, if you aren’t sure what to do, it’s better to use Pan/Pani just to be sure and wait until the the person proposes dropping the formalities. That way, you’re not doing anything wrong and you don’t have to worry so much.

That seems to be how it normally works, and I do my best to follow the “rules” so to speak, even though it doesn’t seem to be set in stone. You probably have to be Polish, having lived here forever to get it 100%. When in doubt, just use Pan/Pani.

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  • Reply Maja 9 June 2021 at 14:22

    Great analysis! I’m sure it’s confusing and often times even as a Polish person I get unsure.

    One thing I can tell you though: don’t skip the title with young people in professional setting! There’s nothing more annoying than getting your first or second job, finally feeling like a grown-up, and people calling you “honey”. To them being called Pan/Pani really is a gratifying sign of respect.

    Sometimes I do hate it though. I live in Canada now and when I took a Spanish class, I happened to have a couple of older than me, 40-60 year old Polish ladies. They were very friendly and we saw each other every week at the class, and still since I was younger and didn’t know then as well as they knew each other, I would feel the need to call them Pani. It was quite ridiculous, being informal “you” with everyone during the class, both in English and Spanish, and switching on the formalities as soon as we switched to Polish for a chat after.

  • Reply Piotr 9 June 2021 at 22:35

    I think that your issues with Pan and Pani are related to our cultural differences. The Anslo-Saxons seem to be just less formal than Poles. They address to everyone by you and pharases Sir or Madam are used rather rarely to be honest. I totally agree with an every sentence you wrote in your latest post. I have been living in Poland since my birth and talking formally to strangers or eldely people make some sense. Hovever, asking for something my peer or person being slightly older than me while keeping all formalities looks really odd and confusing to me. We simply don`t learn these rules-we just use them automatically by observing other people. And we still have some troubles when and how use them. So, you aren`t alone at all!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 10 June 2021 at 10:13

      Well that’s good to know it’s not just me! It’s so hard to know sometimes. I remember a long time ago I said do widzenia to a group of my husband’s friends and they all laughed. I was so embarrassed but I guess I just I didn’t really realise back then that it was formal or just thought that since we didn’t really know each other even though we had met once I couldn’t drop the formality, but, yeah, I realised pretty quick that mistake.

  • Reply GoHa Samo H 10 June 2021 at 00:38

    If someone is older – always unless stated otherwise (I have a feeling that our parents and grandparents used those names even more often, to show how cultured they are and respect to the other person).

    If you are about the same age (let’s say +\- 10 years):
    – if it’s a social situation like workspace, a meeting in a pub or at your friend’s – don’t use Pan/Pani
    – if it’s a totally stranger – use Pan /Pani

    If that’s someone you should/ would like show respect (or just be polite to them) like a mentioned teacher at school, a customer, an employee at any urząd or simply a lecturer at university – use Pan Pani unless stated otherwise.

    If you are in a heated dispute you will robably use Pan/Pani to show that you are more cultured than your opponent… even if the word that comes next from your mouth is an F. word xD

    On the internet, on social spaces mostly it’s uncommon to see Pan/Pani. I use it only when replying to older people or in a dispute with someone who shows disrespect to others and use F words – simply to show how low they are behaving and that Im keeping my posture/I’m psychically balanced even after their insults.

    If you don’t know just dont call them anyhow 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 10 June 2021 at 10:15

      Hah! I love that you would use Pan/Pani in a heated dispute. That’s a good one! I gotta remember that – not that I get in a lot of them but sometimes I desperately want to when people try to skip me in line 🙂

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