Cultural Musings

Why’s the topic of health so taboo in Poland?

I know there are some taboo topics in Poland like sex (actually true), supposedly money (but everyone talks about it all the time), and health – the topic of today’s post. I’ve had so many situations recently where someone has kept what seems like perfectly normal information about their medical health from me, and it drives me absolutely mad! Please don’t tell me you’re going to the hospital but not why. Please don’t tell me your kid is near death by not why. Please don’t tell me you got a biopsy but not of what. PLEASE. I can’t stand it anymore! 

I can understand if you have a venereal disease and you don’t wanna talk about it. Or maybe you’re getting a vasectomy – fine, don’t need to know. If you have an issue that might be embarrassing in casual conversation, there are ways to avoid talking about it all together. How about – “hey, I have something going on next week so I can’t meet.” or “My grandma’s coming into town so I need to reschedule.” Perfectly acceptable lies that don’t make me worried that something terrible is going on with you. 

But recently, I get a lot of things like this: 

My ex-long-time-student who I bumped into recently that “she’s feeling better after surgery in March”… no details whatsoever. I hesitate in these situations because I don’t want to intrude into their privacy (I actually do but don’t want them to think I’m rude and I’m not sure what the norm is here), so I wait for them to tell me, and nothing! 

My kid’s babysitter went to the hospital – didn’t tell me why. UGH. 

My student’s kid was in the hospital for a few weeks. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she’d tell me next time we see each other… which still hasn’t happened since then and has left me wondering this entire time! 

Even my 9-year-old neighbor recently came over to our house and had this big scab on her forehead, so I asked her what happened. Her response… “oh, it’s a long story… haha” Turns out she got in a small motorcycle crash with her dad. Why would that be taboo? Why couldn’t she have just told me? 

I’m pregnant (second baby, it’s a girl! not hiding facts in an effort not to infuriate you!) and no one feels embarrassed to ask me about the details. Every cashier, neighbor, or old man selling chicken at the targ can ask me when my due date is – fine with me. But just imagine if my answer was something like “oh, sometime this year…” That would be annoying! And I don’t even know those people. 

I know that people are entitled to their privacy, but if we’re not strangers and you bring up on your own that something is wrong with you, please god don’t leave me in the dark about how serious it is. I need to know how little or how much to worry about you. 

Am I insane or do other people experience this as well? I’m always left hesitating between wanting to ask (because I think that’s nice, plus I’m interested) and not wanting to go too far.

So, to my Polish readers, should I start being rude and just flat out asking people? Would it be considered rude to ask or considered rude not to ask? Are people waiting for me to ask for more information or is it considered strange for people to discuss their medical problems in casual conversation? A little advice would be greatly appreciated. 

Na zdrowia to you all! 

Also, if you’re interested in this this topic, take a look at a post I wrote about health myths in Poland.

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21 Comments

  • Reply GoHa Samo H 27 September 2019 at 08:03

    Wow! I would never perceive health issues as a taboo 😮 Unless, as you noticed, it’s a veneral thing or other very upsetting condition (I could think of cancer), people usually talk about their condition With Too Many Details if you ask them 😀 I remember my grandma… she was number one in doing this.

    I think… if you don’t ask people they won’t tell you even if the need of telling the story squeezes them inside. They probably didn’t want you to be overwhelmed by their problems. Especially… as you are pregnant 🙂 Maybe the last is the case?

    I’m also not healthy enough, problems with conceiving built in my DNA. Usually that’s a taboo, (any problems with getting pregnant), but I don’t care much. About 10% of women have PCOS like me, it would be awesome if women knew about such condition.

    All the best!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 27 September 2019 at 20:18

      Perhaps what you’re saying about people not wanting to overwhelm someone else with their problems is true, but then again in that case, why bring it up at all? I think that what people don’t realise is when someone doesn’t give me all the info, I worry more because I think about the whole range of possibilities and what’s in my imagination is probably worse than the real thing!

      • Reply GoHa Samo H 3 October 2019 at 23:03

        Because they want you to ask them, haha 😀 It’s lik… huh… You know you shouldn’t ask a Pole “how are you” because they will tell you the story of their life, right? I think it’s quite the sam 😀

  • Reply Gosia 27 September 2019 at 08:52

    I’m a very open person so I give away a lot of my personal info and I totally feel you because I’d like to hear as much from others 🙁
    In my opinion it’s not rude to ask for details, I do it all the time and people just know that this is how I am. And I think that most of Poles wouldn’t really mind being asked for more information ❤
    💙🧡💚

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 27 September 2019 at 20:16

      Well that’s nice to know. If you think people wouldn’t mind being asked, then I’ll go ahead and just do it 🙂

  • Reply Wiktor Górecki 27 September 2019 at 10:00

    I feel that the topic really is taboo in Poland, but it’s more about not throwing one’s own misery on another person. I would consider it perfectly fine asking “what happened?” or “something serious?” – most people should share some details when they see you got worried and thus curious.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 27 September 2019 at 20:19

      This seems to be a trend in terms of answers, so I think I got the explanation I was looking for 🙂 Thanks for the help!

  • Reply Maciek 27 September 2019 at 13:40

    Hi Leah!

    That’s interesting, only after reading your text I realized this is all true and makes not much sense ^^ I feels natural for me, cause I’ve been raised in this culture and it just is as it is. I can only think about a handful of possible explanations, none of which is a good one:

    * People don’t want dig into details because this kind of situations are hard for them and speaking about them is not pleasant at all.

    * By sharing the full story you can expect the listener to be empathizing with you, try to lift your spirit up, talk positive things – and we often do not want this kind of things from other people than our close friends and family.

    * It’s a way of putting a “bargain” on the listener shoulders (“oh, now she knows..”) making him/her obligated to feel sorry for you, and we also do not like that.

    What I’m pretty sure of is that it isn’t a smart/calculated/cold way of placing a trap for someone just to make them ask (well, in most of the cases at least). I’d say its’ rather a defensive mechanism, because we’re very picky about people we want to talk about this stuff to. I don’t want to have everybody around me being upset about my medical condition (and we also do not like lying about visiting grandmas 😉 ). However, as you illustrated in your post, sometimes it can work just the opposite way 😛

    So, advice? If you are truly concern, just be rude and ask 🙂 You can add something to better emphasize your intentions, like “Oh, is it serious? Should I be worrying?”. It may not help overcome a defensive way of thinking I mentioned above, but now there is no way someone would take such a question as a rude one 🙂 There is still a good chance they won’t tell you, but as a last resort you can rant about how this kind of behaviour drives you crazy, maybe they will feel ashamed and tell a little bit more knowing how you feel about it 😉

    So, it’s how I’m going to approach this from now on. If I really care, I’m just gonna ask 😛 There are worse things in the world than being rude, who cares.

    PS: Second baby, yay, congrats! 🙂 All the best!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 27 September 2019 at 16:25

      Hey Maciek! Great to hear from you!! Thanks for the congratulations.

      As for your theories — I love that you said that people don’t want someone other than close friends or family to try and lift their spirits? Why not? Because it makes you feel vulnerable or something? That’s funny to me. Maybe you’re right, it’s just not wanting to burden someone with your issues but like why bring it up at all then? Why not just completely not discuss the issue? That’s what I don’t get. Why bring up something, dangle a carrot in front of my face, so to speak, and then just yank it back? I mean why the coy act? If I don’t want to discuss something in full detail, I just don’t talk about it at all. It’s a funny thing! Next time I’m just gonna do what you said and ask if it’s serious or not. That seems like a great follow-up question, even though I’m sure I won’t get a detailed response 🙂

  • Reply gghgghghghgh 27 September 2019 at 15:03

    If you only tell people about un-embarrasing things regarding your health, the first time you’ll omit details people will instantly be suspicious.

  • Reply Piotr 30 September 2019 at 04:18

    I have just read your latest post and I have to say that`s pretty suprising what have you written. I wouldn`t thought that health thing is a taboo subject in Poland. To be honest, I suppose it`s totally opposite! I even can`t count out how many times I have heard: Oh, my head is so painful! Oh my God, I can`t move my leg or shoulder! Olbviously, all over world should know about my illnesses or deseases even if it doesn`t want to. Getting straight to small talks to your surrounding… I find people, you were chatting with, a bit impolite to be diplomatic. If someone informs you about her or his own health troubles that are quite serious, some details should be given to you for sure. If not, you may ask: what happened? I`d like to know cause I`m worrying about you. And nobody should find it offensive. Coming back to meritum-giving any news related to health condition with no further infos makes no sense to me at all! What for some guys do this-to make someone anxious? And congrats on expecting the second baby!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 28 October 2019 at 09:42

      Thanks for the congrats 🙂 Well, honestly, I think people have no trouble whatsoever discussing small illnesses like colds or whatever. People even talk about the stuff too much. Like wondering how they got sick (that’s another topic I’ve written about – health myths in Poland – and all kinds of ridiculous things like that. But when it comes to something serious, people are really coy and I just don’t get it. They feel embarrassed or something? Like other people said, they don’t want to burden someone else with their problems, but, well, if that’s the case then don’t bring it up at all!

  • Reply Ron Ti 2 October 2019 at 18:52

    Dear Leah
    If I may venutre a non-Polish opinion, what you are writing about here goes straight to the heart of the bigggest difference between Polish and American/ Australian culture. It is common in Australia to ask all sorts of personal questions very early in meeting someone-often for the first time. There is just not the same reserve that Poles have. I notice this more with Americans than Australians, who have retained some of the reserve of the English ( however the Irish side of the culture dilutes this..that is another discussion). Amercians open out to one another very quickly. This includes details of one’s medical condition. I don’t think it is so much that Poles are odd or reserved-it is the westerners who are too open!
    Anyhow that is my opinion and this is, after all, a blog, where opinions are shared !

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 28 October 2019 at 09:40

      You know perhaps we are too open – and it’s crazy to expect everyone to be an open book – but I will say that if you’re going to bring up a topic of conversation, it’s only fair to share the most important details with the other person!

  • Reply Ronald Ti 2 October 2019 at 18:55

    Oh, I am sorry, i forgot the most important part of my comment: please take all the very best wishes from your Australian cousins for the new addition to Zespol Morawiec ( sorry if I got your surname wrong) !!! When is baby due…?

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 28 October 2019 at 09:39

      Thank you so much 🙂 Yes that’s my last name and the baby is due on November 10 🙂 So we’ve got about 2 weeks!

  • Reply Paweł 28 October 2019 at 10:52

    I guess it more like
    – I have some story to tell but probably you won’t be interested
    – Tell me!
    – No, it’s a long story, you will be bored.
    – No please tell me!
    – OK, here it goes …
    two hours later:
    – and how are you?

  • Reply Ronald Ti 2 November 2019 at 07:19

    2 November-almost there! All the best -I don’t expect there are going to be a heck of a lot of posts for a while!
    Wish me luck-I’m sitting the Polish exam in 3 weeks, it is a complete lottery ( but that’s another story)

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 20 November 2019 at 14:13

      Omg good luck! That’s amazing! Let me know how it went 🙂 I’m very curious. Oh and the baby was born on the 9th 🙂

  • Reply Jake 6 November 2019 at 06:29

    Congratulations on your pregnancy!

    I’ve honestly never noticed this with my Polish family (though I’ll be sure to look out for it from now!)

    Warm regards,

    Jake

  • Reply Ania 6 November 2019 at 11:59

    Leah I agree with you all and I have the same feeling 🙂 Thank you so much for writing about it .

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