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.
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.
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!
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.
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 🙂
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 🙂
Careful not to get all your advice on the use of the Polish language from the lefties/commies/”progressives”.. They would love nothing less than to see these forms of the Polish culture disappear.. I personally love them.. For example, I’d rather not be approached in public by strangers or people I have met once or twice, talking to me in public like we’re drinking buddies.. even if they are older than I am.. It’s not uncommon for an elderly person to address a younger person in a formal way – and it doesn’t imply that the younger person in this particular situation is above the said elder in social status.. All this can be narrowed down to a simple SHOW RESPECT to people you encounter in your daily life.. How much respect should be shown depends on the person, the situation, and your intelligence.. Additionally, it reflects either positively or negatively on the person’s character how these forms are used to address people.. You would not want to show too much respect to people who don’t deserve it.. but at the same time treating people with respect no matter what’s their social status in relation to you reflects positively on your character.. Generally all people should be respected. just because they’re human.. Sure.. figuring things out exactly can be tricky.. Cultural Marxism has vulgarized the culture in the West.. USA is prime example.. This degradation has been creeping into Polish cultural norms as well.. Language is not just for communication, it influences how people behave.. This what makes Polish people Polish.. hopefully it continues into the future..
Aw Yes, people from western Europe, US or another part of world are quite amazed, shocked, confused and so on … Because for example we can insult someone in really hmmm gentlemen way I guess? For example “Panie, idź Pan stąd”, or ” No chyba Pana Pojebało” that is “Mister, get out of here” and “Are you lost your fuckin’ mind Mister”? I know it’s sound very strange for outsiders I can say, but it’s same for polish people. For example, simple situation. You sand me something, in work, that was not correct. In Poland I reply – This message is incorrect, incomplete etc, Do it again, fix it and fast(if this is corpo). And if situation is quite often then some insults can be used even or threaten of fired. Who needs an employee that can’t even sand an email correctly.
I US ? Well You need to be falsely kind, even that inside you are angry, Your reply with so much volume of sugar that Your PC probably will get diabetes. It will sound like : Oh Your mail was so good, so perfect, you are really a professional. But Know what, I read it 20 times because it was better than King stories, and I believe there is something missing, really small part, so if you will be so kind have some free time can You be so kind to send it to me again ?
Seriously, why Americans Write such an essays ? Someone did something wrong, he need to fix it – simple. He will be offended ? Well if he is so soft, he can always clean streets of something.
Honestly, I agree with your point about Americans and their annoying, beat around the bush emails. Just fucking say it! It’s so refreshing in Poland that you can just ask direct questions and get to the point without having to put it in a positive sandwich. However, I will say that recently I did this with some clients and it went badly. So, I think it’s changing and sometimes people do want you to coddle them a bit!
Just ask yourself, “Would a Southern say Sir/Mam in this situation?”
I’m not sure I’d call the director of the school a power difference situation – that’s (to my mind – I make no claims of being the authority on the subject) more just standard respectful formality between people who have an institutional relationship (business relationships fall under this). It’s more of a peer-to-peer level respect. Yes, she’s the director of your son’s school and exerts a measure of power over him, but you’re also the parent of the child and wield power in the relationship too – as you identify, you’re in a sense a client – she HAS to deal with you and be professional (even if you are not).
Even if she were younger than you, calling her Pani would be simply an acknowledgment of the respect you’d give anyone except a child or (younger-ish-maybe-depends-on-context) teenager. Wow… that last is an example of where things get really thorny. Added to this would be the respect due to a professional like a doctor, lawyer, or potential new client if, say, you were teaching English (before you move “na ty”), or even a teacher.
What I’d like to emphasize is that there’s no loss of face here. Where failing to abide by protocol does involve a loss of face for both of you (you for being rude, your interlocutor for being the subject of insult due to premature/unwarranted/unwanted familiarity).
It’s an adjustment from an English (especially American and Australian) understanding of face (which is a weak and irregular use).
Another thing to keep in mind is that despite being a very Catholic country, Poland is as much of a *shame* culture (typical of collectivist cultures) as it is of a *guilt* culture (as is typical of individualist cultures). So Poland stands somewhere vaguely in the middle between a USA and, say, a Japan or China. This also helps explain the stronger influence of issues of face.
To my mind, an example of power distance is between yourself and your boss, or of a family patriarch/matriarch.
For those unfamiliar with Poland, I think it helps to explain that Pan/Pani in such a situation isn’t just a matter of politeness, but it’s also functional. Here’s an example:
My uncle was a senior manager at a factory. He came up from the floor, so he was familiar with the workers. For workers, being “na ty” is common between each other, as they become familiar and are peers. In this situation, he was also promoted at an early stage when there were few line workers.
This caused an issue, as his former peers were used to calling him by name. Such familiarity made it difficult to enforce discipline, and indeed, it encouraged a degree of slackness with work around him that wasn’t present with other managers, and resulted in more disobedience and negotiation around that disobedience. New workers also felt encouraged/pressured to refer to him by name as everyone else around them did.
Eventually, between his careful discussions about the importance of calling him “Pan” (and of course, he called them “Pan” as well), workforce attrition, and a rapid expansion of the workforce, he did manage to regain formality with all but two of his former coworkers – one of whom was a rather stubborn, not very bright, and very gregarious person, the other was a close friend.
Even this state of affairs resulted in occasional issues, as those two were perceived to be favoured (and probably to some degree were – and not just in the sense of being able to refer to him by name), breeding occasional low-level drama.
You should address all adult strangers by “Pan” or “Pani”. Your intelocutors could even laugh at you but it is you who is on the light side of the Force.
You can use “ty” if it is clearly stated: getting in a new job – your boss/the person introducing you to the place and people says “wszyscy są na ty”.
You can propose “przejście na ty” only to younger, must await such a proposal from older ones. However remember, that “ty” is reserved for people who you really know – friends and colleagues.
Because it is exhausting. In addition, presumably for most people under 40 (except extreme conservatives), addressing peers in the third person (per pan) feels somewhat cringy. To be honest, I genuinely despise such formalities, which make me feel old and weird. So when I turned 30-something, and for the first time some people around 20 started calling me “pan”, I experienced shock and disbelief (am I really so old now?). Fortunately, in modern workplaces (especially in IT) people usually talk to each other in a normal way (per ty), without all that kowtow.
For sure in the workplace it’s different but I don’t work in any place so I only experience all the exhausting formalities in places where they have to be basically. And I have to use it on the phone when clients call, etc. So it’s annoying.