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!
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.
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.