In Polish language there is great complexity when dealing with forms of address. The forms of addressing people in one country are often different in another county. I wanted to explain some of these differences and the meanings behind them.
First, let’s look at the seemingly simple forms of address such as “Pan/Pani” (Sir/Madam) and “ty” (you). The distinction between these two is very important when you converse with Polish people. If you do not use the words in an appropriate manner you might receive “weird looks” from people or, if you are lucky, perhaps a bit of a laughter. If you are not, you can expect to get into trouble. And if you think this is a joke, trust me it’s not. Here is why.
Imagine asking an elderly person a simple question, such as “Where do you live”? (Gdzie ty mieszkasz?). If you are a foreigner who has a basic command of the Polish language and who is used to the form “you,” that’s what you would probably say. In Polish, however, we would say “Where does Sir/Madam live?” (Gdzie Pan/Pani mieszka?). The elderly person would probably take the word “you” literally – meaning “ty,” and since in Poland relationships with senior people are rather formal, he or she would much likely take it as an offense.
The same goes with any business situation while talking to your boss or any superior authority. Imagine coming to a polish job interview and saying for example “Jak się masz?” (How are you?) instead of “Jak się Pan/Pani ma?” (How is Sir/Madam/). I do not think you would have any chance to get that job unless the person knows you are a foreigner and you are excused to make mistakes like that.
As weird as it can be, these linguistic implications work both ways. In other words, Polish people struggle with “you” as well. Why? Since we are used to the form Sir/Madam, it is very awkward for us to use the word “you” when speaking English to people we meet for the first time as well as elderly people or someone superior to us. Every time we say it, it seems inappropriate and disrespectful at the same time. That is how I felt at first when I moved to USA…until I got used to using “you” with everyone…
In fact, the feeling of awkwardness is far-reaching for Polish people. For example, it is not common at all or, better yet, it is extremely rude and unacceptable in Poland to be on a first-name basis with one’s boss. Whereas, for example, Americans do not seem to have a problem with that. Unless our boss simply states, “Please call me Steve,” we will continue calling him Mr. Smith or simply Sir. The same goes with any other relationship in our country. Even relationships between peers usually start as formal and then they gradually change to being the “best friends” type of relationship.
While studying in college in Poland, all professors would address students as Pan/Pani as well. If they would talk to me, they would say”Pani Kasiu”. As far as I know – they still do it. I know that for a lot of students it means that now they are adults and they are respected more than for example in high school.
It is good to have basic knowledge of social differences straight before setting off on the trip to Poland. If you do not want to come across as weird or rude simply follow this old adage: “When in Poland do as the Polish people do.”
Do następnego razu… (Till next time…)