Pan and Pani Posted by on Apr 29, 2011 in Culture, Grammar

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…)



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About the Author: Kasia

My name is Kasia Scontsas. I grew near Lublin, Poland and moved to Warsaw to study International Business. I have passion for languages: any languages! Currently I live in New Hampshire. I enjoy skiing, kayaking, biking and paddle boarding. My husband speaks a little Polish, but our daughters are fluent in it! I wanted to make sure that they can communicate with their Polish relatives in our native language. Teaching them Polish since they were born was the best thing I could have given them! I have been writing about learning Polish language and culture for Transparent Language’s Polish Blog since 2010.


  1. joey:

    Dzień dobry pani Kasiu czy Katarzyna czy n.p. Kowalska? Myślę że Pani Kowalska jest prawid……. odpowiad…..? (I think that Pani Kowalska is the correcct answer?)

    Ok, say that you have broken this rule and have broken it for several months(ok! almost a year!), would it now be an insult to start addressing this person as pani?

    Are there any other things that you shouldn’t say that are particular to the Polish language or culture?

    I said Jak się masz to a receptionist once! She either didn’t understand me or was in shock, I didn’t repeat it for her.

  2. Adam:

    Well joey, it depends. The “Pan/Pani Surename” style is the most official. It’s always used in buisness and state affairs. If u know an elder person its good to use “Pan/Pani Name” Like pani Kasiu or pani Katarzyno (first one is good when u can in close realationship, the second one is e.g. for a student and teacher relationship or if u have bossy boss 😛 )

    Noone will take it asan inslut from a foreigner that he realised he was saying wrong all the time. Um… ok, if u start calling your girlfriend or any family member by “Pan/Pani” its wrong. Its like u are saying “Hello Mr. Brother”

    Jak sie masz, spoken to a stranger on a street is very suprising for people. If u meet stranger u always call him “sir/madame” even in English. And it isnt good to proceed without any permition from “oficial” pan/pani, to nonformal you

  3. John:

    I am an American and my wife is Polish. When we are in Poland my wife warns me to be respectful to strangers and particularly professionals and doctors. Once during a doctor’s visit I asked the doctor a question using “ty” and my wife instantly corrected me. To an American this is very hard to get used to doing.

  4. Gerard Nicolaas:

    Elderly people or someone superior to me I will always address ‘with two words’ as it is called in Dutch (in which language we moreover have two words for ‘you’: ‘u’ for superiors and ‘jij’ for equals). Thus in English I say ‘How are you, Sir?’

  5. Nerijus:

    My problem with these was a little bit the other way round. I learnt Polish mainly from language learning recordings and radio where Pan/Pani seemed to me the only form of address no matter the social situation. I so got wrongly used to it that I didn’t restrict myself to use it everywhere even in situations where people expected to be addressed by name or you. From the reactions I got I figured that they are receiving it quite right. I remember in Polish lesson when I was asked a question like this: Gdzie pan mieszka? My usual natural answer is like this: Pan mieszka teraz w Wilnie.

  6. John:

    I have listened to my wife address even store clerks as Pan or Pani, and always felt that was very respectful to the workers. But in America you don’t hear that form of respect for anyone, sort of like we are all commoners.

  7. Joe Rizzo:

    As an American, I very much enjoyed the clarification you provided. Thank you. Keep writing!