Poland

How to show respect in Poland

In Poland, it takes some time before adults become familiar enough with one another to refer to each other using the equivalent of “you” (ty, equivalent to the French tu or the Spanish tú). Often, people who have worked together or have lived as neighbors for years still do not use the form “you” when speaking to one another. Men are called pan and women pani (in direct address; as Polish nouns are declined, the form of pan and pani change depending on how they are used in a sentence). That said, most Poles would just use their first names when speaking in English (or in another language without a similar form). If you are speaking in Polish, make sure to use the correct form.

Some men, particularly older men, may kiss a woman’s hand when greeting or saying goodbye. Kissing a woman’s hand is considered to be chivalrous by some, but is more and more often seen as outdated. Handshakes are quite common; however, it is very important to remember that men should not offer their hand to a woman – a handshake is only considered polite if the woman offers her hand to the man first. For a more heartfelt greeting or goodbye, close friends of opposite sex or two women will hug and kiss three times, alternating cheeks.

A fairly common practice is for people to greet each other with a dzień dobry (good day) when entering elevators, or at the very least, saying do widzenia (goodbye) when exiting the elevator.

It is also customary to greet shop-keepers or shop-assistants with dzień dobry upon entering a shop or at the beginning of a transaction at the cash register, and to say do widzenia before leaving the shop or at the conclusion of the transaction. Some Poles also use these greetings to the people standing in line when they enter a post office.

It is normal to say dzień dobry when entering a compartment on the train and to say do widzenia when you leave the compartment at your final destination, even if you have no other interaction with your fellow-passengers for the duration of your journey.

It is usual to bring a gift when invited to someone’s home. Flowers are always a good choice. Florists’ kiosks are ubiquitous; be sure to get an odd number of flowers, as an even number is associated with funerals. Poles will often bring vodka or whisky, but this depends on the level of familiarity, so tread carefully. Boxes of chocolates are also a very common present when invited to someone’s home for a meal or special occasion; at First Communion time (May), you will find special boxed chocolates with First Communion pictures on them for the occasion.

It is customary to hold doors and chairs for women, as well as offering help with heavy packages (to acquaintances), getting heavy luggage down from overhead racks on the train (even strangers), and (if you know the woman) helping her on and off with her coat. Polish men in general have great respect for women and show women especial courtesy in these ways.

On buses and trams, seats are set aside for the elderly, handicapped, pregnant women and women travelling with very small children (who must sit on their mothers’ laps). These seats are usually at the front of trams. You can find pictures indicating which seats these are. It is permitted for anyone to sit in these seats, but the young, men, and the able-bodied are expected to give up their seats to the less able, pregnant women and the elderly, especially those seats clearly marked for such people.

Men should not wear hats indoors, in particular when entering a church. Most restaurants, museums, and other public buildings have a cloakroom, and people are expected to leave bags and outerwear there.

The practice of placing one foot on a chair while reading or studying something is very much frowned upon. You can expect to be rebuked by other passengers if you put your feet up on the seats in a train while wearing shoes (in stocking feet, it may be accepted).

Poland can be described as either Central or Central-Eastern Europe. Poles themselves refer to the “old” EU west of its borders as zachód (West) and to the states created after the break-up of the USSR as wschód (East). Poles would not, however, consider Poland geographically to be part of Western Europe but rather Central European, yet will culturally place their society as Western. Try to avoid referring to the country or its people as “Eastern European”, otherwise you could potentially be looked upon as knowing nothing about the world. Geographically this is borne out by drawing a line from the tip of Norway to Greece and from the Urals to the coast of Portugal. For better or worse, Poland remains at the crossroads of Europe, in the continent’s center, however in all definitions, is always West to the centre. The republic’s religion, alphabet and political affiliations are all clearly Western. Unless one lived through the Cold War, relegating contemporary Poland as Eastern Europe will not be forgiven easily.

Another small faux pas (typically with older Poles) involves confusing the Polish language with Russian or German. Poles value their language highly as it was kept at a high price during a longer period of oppressive de-polonization during the partitions and WWII. For example this means not saying spasibo or danke for “thank you” just because you thought it was Polish or you didn’t care. If you’re not sure if your words are indeed Polish or not, it would be seen as extra polite to ask.

Religion

Poles may well be the most devoutly Catholic people in Europe, composing nearly 90% of the population. Similar to Italy, Spain, and Portugal, the Roman Catholic Church retains a deep historical and cultural pull over the country’s national life. The late Pope John Paul II (a Pole himself) in particular is revered here, and the Catholic Church remains held in high esteem. Bear this in mind if religion is brought up in conversation with a Pole. Although Catholicism is the dominant faith in Poland, there are also Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish and Islamic minorities in the country. Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Polish Constitution, and thus all faiths (or lack of) are legally protected.

When entering any church, be sure to dress modestly, especially during services. Poles typically dress in their “Sunday best” for Mass; dressing in sloppy or very casual clothes will be seen by many as a lack of respect, unless it is clear that someone probably does not have more appropriate clothes for the occasion (for example, a poor person or a traveller). It is generally considered offensive to enter a church for purely touristic purposes while a service is going on. Many churches that attract tourists (such a major cathedrals) post signs indicating that tour groups should not enter the church during services, but these signs may not be in your language. Also, do not talk loudly or take flash photos inside a church when there are people present kneeling in prayer (as there almost always will be).

Non-Catholics can attend Catholic worship, but should never go forward for communion (not even for a blessing, as there is a general blessing at the end of Mass). Instead, non-Catholic visitors should remain seated or kneeling when the congregation goes forward.

Catholics customarily genuflect (bend the right knee, touching it to the floor) or at least stop and bow when passing in front of the tabernacle (usually behind the altar; look for a metal—usually gold—box, and for a light—often red or an oil lamp or candle—that is burning near it). Failure to make some gesture, such as a brief pause or turning toward the tabernacle, can be seen offensive to the faithful, especially in churches where non-Catholic tourists are uncommon.

For the faithful, a light burning near the tabernacle indicates the presence of God in the Eucharist, inside the tabernacle. This light is burning 364 days of the year in every Catholic church (i.e., it is only turned off once per year, when the tabernacle is empty and left standing open). Thus loud talking, running, audible conversations, eating and drinking, taking flash photos, posing for pictures or other behavior that seems oblivious to the presence of God is highly offensive.

Men and boys should always remove their hats upon entering a Catholic church and keep them off while inside the church.

Several national holidays of Poland follow the religious calendar; i.e., Catholic Holy Days of Obligation are also national holidays. These include the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1); the Epiphany of the Lord (January 6); the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi; in June, the date varies); the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15); All Saints’ Day (November 1); Christmas (December 25); and Easter (the date varies). Poles also traditionally go to Mass (and have the day off) on the Feast of Saint Stephen (December 26) and Monday in the Octave of Easter (the Monday after Easter), though these are not Holy Days of Obligation in the Church calendar. You can expect parish churches to have the normal Sunday Mass schedule on these holidays. (You can also expect most businesses to be closed and buses and trams will probably be running on the Sunday/holiday schedule.)

The most famous religious shrine in Poland is the Shrine of our Lady of Częstochowa. Her feast day is August 26th. when pilgrims from all over Poland walk (some ride bicycles or take motor vehicles) from their home parishes to the shrine especially in the period between May and August, though year-round there is a constant stream of pilgrims to the site of the shrine, the monastery of Jasna Góra in Częstochowa.

In Warsaw, Roman Catholics can attend English Mass at St Paul the Apostle of Nations Church in Radna Street.

In Wrocław, Roman Catholics can attend English Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation at the church of Sw Karol Boromeusz (Charles Borromeo) in Krucza Street. The Pastoral Centre for English Speakers in the parish also offers confession and can arrange weddings and baptisms in English, as well as catechism for converts and pastoral care in English.

Like most European countries, small Muslim and Buddhist communities (of locals and non) of various denominations operate, generally in private settings in the bigger cities. They are usually poorly advertised and can be better approached first via internet searches.

The Holocaust and World War II

The Holocaust was the genocide of European Jewry. The Nazi Germans murdered 90% of Poland’s Jews. In addition other ethnic, religious and political groups were also targeted. It is now estimated that the Germans killed 3 million Polish Jews. Additionally, over 3 million non-Jewish Poles were also murdered, and many others were enslaved. Many members of Poland’s minority groups, the intelligentsia, Roman Catholic priests, and political opponents of the Nazis were among the dead. The Soviets (who invaded Poland shortly after the Nazis and later occupied it after the World War II) also were determined to exterminate various sections of Polish society (including, among others, members of the anti-Nazi resistance, business owners and democratic activists). Between the census of 1939 and the census of 1945, the population of Poland had been reduced by over 30% from 35 million to 23 million.

In this context, it is important to be sensitive to the fact that the time of war and Soviet occupation was a tragedy for not only Polish Jews, but most all of Polish society in the 20th century. Poland was the only Nazi-occupied region where helping Jews was punishable by death to one’s entire family – a policy that was to a large part implemented in response to the widespread solidarity between Jews and non-Jews in occupied Poland. It is seen in Poland as offensive to downplay the sufferings of non-Jewish members of Polish society during World War II.

Similarly to Germany and Austria, displaying Nazi symbols is illegal, except when used for educational purposes. Holocaust denial is also punishable by law. Both could result in a prison sentence. While exceptions are technically made for the swastika when used in a religious context for Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, you may be subject to lengthy questioning by the police, if you choose to wear a swastika. That said, the laws against swastikas are not enforced nearly as strictly as they are in Germany, and neutral display of the symbol will almost never be a problem, although it is surely advised against. Prosecutors have been known to dismiss charges against swastikas due to the ambiguous nature of the symbol.

Communism

Due to the experiences of the Soviet occupation and communist rule, the topic of communism (or socialism) remains controversial and sensitive in Poland. While some tourist-oriented businesses might be playing with communist-kitsch symbols or offer “communist-style tours” (especially in Kraków), many Poles see communist symbols and rhetoric as only slightly less unacceptable than Nazi swastikas or slogans. Unlike in the West (or even in other former Eastern Bloc states like the Czech Republic), few people in Poland—especially the elderly—find communist symbols romantic, funny or trendy. Ask older Poles to tell you about communism and you will often hear stories of empty store shelves, backroom deals to get meat or bread, politically-minded arrests, and telephone bugging. Many Poles are proud of the Solidarity movement and its hand in the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Bear these issues in mind if communism is brought up in conversation with Poles and make sure not to disrespect anyone’s memory or feelings regarding this issue.