Polish Language Blog

Poles and kombinowanie Posted by on Oct 27, 2009 in Culture, Vocabulary

Today we will tackle something that is a bit controversial. Or maybe not, I guess it all depends on your point of view. But we’ll see.

I really don’t like sweeping generalizations, though that doesn’t stop me in making them myself from time to time, to be perfectly honest. So most of the time when I hear such a general comment, I just take it with a grain of salt. But when those sweeping generalizations begin to include me, well, that’s a whole another story. It’s personal then, and for me that’s when the gloves come off.

But yeah, what kind of generalizations are we talking about here? You know, those broad comments that encompass perhaps an entire nation or an ethic group, like that the French are generally rude (not true) and the Americans fat (again, not true). So why am I getting all worked up about it today? Somebody has told me recently, and to my face no less, that Poles are a conniving, dishonest bunch that can’t be trusted. As a proof of those national characteristics, the person used the famous Polish art (or is it a skill?) of kombinowanie.

Now, I know those comments have been around for centuries, and I know that Poles made kombinowanie into a whole new art form in its own right (that much is true), but when someone says it to my face, that makes it personal.

And personally, some of the most dishonest and untrustworthy people I’ve met in my life were single males between the ages of 22 and 32, university educated, no less. Does that mean that I’m going to pass sweeping generalizations that all single males between the ages of 22 and 32 are dishonest pricks? Of course not. So it really bothers me when narrow-minded people apply such generalizations to whole nationalities and ethnic groups.

I explained as much to the person I was talking with, and his response was “but you guys (meaning Poles) have a bad reputation everywhere you go.”

Oh really? Is that true? Am I that out of touch with how the Polish people are perceived by foreigners?

And is “kombinowanie” really all that bad? I’m as good at it as the next Pole, and yet I’ve never used it for nefarious purposes. Quite the opposite in fact.

But what is that “kombinowanie” anyway?
Some of my fellow countrymen will tell you that it’s one Polish word that can’t be translated into English. I disagree. It can be translated, but how you do it depends on the context.

The verb “kombinować” can mean many things. It can be used as in “to scheme”, “to fix”, “to sort out”, “to arrange” and so on. You get the idea. Nothing wrong with a little “kombinowanie” itself, it’s why you want to kombinować that might be perceived as less than honest by some people.

So yeah, we are the masters of kombinowanie, but does that immediately mean we are dishonest and untrustworthy as a nation?
Your opinions please. Honest opinions, of course.

PS. I apologize for the recent lack of comments from me, but we’re moving again and have internet issues.

Tags: ,
Keep learning Polish with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it


  1. Kaz Augustin:

    What’s interesting is that Poland is not the only place where you have kombinowanie, although — due to historical context — it might be used there more often than elsewhere. Polish hubby and I depend on it as part of our critical life survival skills, and we’ve lived in several countries. It’s an exceedingly useful tool to have in one’s personal arsenal that, as you well point out, can be used for Good as well as Ebil!!!, so it’s really down to the individual as to how it’s perceived in any one, given situation.

    I think your insulter was just jealous because he can’t navigate the River of Reality as well as the average Pole can. Personally, I consider it to be one of many abilities that I find so admirable in my darling husband.

  2. russ:

    Please give concrete examples of “kombinowanie”. I only have a general idea what you’re getting at.

    In any case, obviously the person you were talking to was an idiot if he really thinks any generalization about a group is 100% true. I don’t see any point in getting all angry about it, any more than I (a man) would get very angry if some woman complains “all men are jerks” or something. Some people speak in hyperbole, unfortunately. If you point out that they’re making a rather broad stereotype (“do you think I’M a jerk?”) and they continue to insist it’s always true (or that “it’s always true except for you, of course!”), I don’t see much else to do than shrug and quit the conversation; you can’t rationally discuss something with such a person. Even if some Poles are dishonest, that certainly doesn’t mean all Poles are. In my daily life I don’t feel cheated or threatened by Poles.

    That said, I’ve talked with a lot of Poles and have an impression that due to the (understandable) disrespect toward the previous totalitarian government and the idea that it was OK or even honorable to cheat the system back then, it seems that there remains some idea that it’s still OK to cheat the system, and I’ve heard people casually tell about doing things which seem rather surprising to me (an American), e.g. multiple stories of hit and run car accidents (instead of stopping and exchanging insurance info etc), ordering something from someone online and then simply not paying them, etc.

    Also I talked with a supervisor who works for the Polish branch of an international grocery store chain. In western Europe, the stores have a policy of giving a refund if a customer returns and complains that they purchased something and found it was rotten when they got home. The Polish supervisor said that the chain couldn’t do such a policy in Poland because it would be too often abused by people dishonestly claiming they bought something they hadn’t really and demanding refunds.

  3. kuba:

    You want to see kombinowac watch the US congress.
    Generalizations about any group of people is usually false. The bell shape curve applies to all large groups. Radicals at both ends

  4. Haroon:

    Hi Anna,

    First of all let me tell you that you’re doing a really wonderful job.

    I come from Pakistan and we (as well as the Indians) have a word called ‘jugar’ which can be translated in most cases (if not all) into ‘kobinowanie’. Thus we could compete with the Poles at kombinowanie (and we might actually win – generalisations).

    The thought of Poles being dishonest or untrustworthy seems really abhorrent to me. Yeah, it is hard to get them smiling (am I generalising again?), but once you get to know them, they make true, sincere friends.

  5. thomas westcott:

    One example of American kombinowanie is to have someone ‘give’ you furniture, in this case a power recliner, and then have them deliver it to your home.

    In the work place in a large corporation, I have seen a young woman office clerk who needed additional filling cabinets do the same thing. She literally ‘stole’ the filing cabinets from another department and had the people in that department deliver the cabinets all the way across the plant, maybe a quarter mile, and up a flight of stairs.

    Anna, you can compare kombinowanie to the English finagle. 🙁
    Wikipedia will redirect from finagle to Murphy’s law.
    I remember, from my youth, Finagle’s umteenth corollary: the only books that one loses by loaning out are those books one wishes most to keep. 🙂

    Another word to consider is finesse, chytrość.
    It takes driving finesse for a car, with me driving, to be able to go where the jeeps do.
    I was able to finagle a four wheel drive car and a vacation into having some fun with the jeeps. 🙂

  6. Tracy:

    I lived in Poland for two years, from 2004-06. From the viewpoint of an American, it was hard to get used to this concept, and it initially drove me bonkers (as a teacher, especially the cheating in the classroom!) but after a while you start to understand why it was necessary. In general, I found most Poles to be very honest, loyal, kind and helpful, and experienced some of the most sincere friendships of my life. Now that I am living in the UK, I speak up whenever I hear someone disparaging Polish people. The sweeping genaralization about Poles is a stereotype, and it is sad when people can not look beyond the stereotype to learn about the people themselves. I love Poland and the Polish people!!

  7. Cristina:

    Romanians also have this word with same meaning, the full expression is: “a face o combinatie” (read: a facze o kombinacje” = to make a combination) ; and yes, it does have a negative meaning 😀

  8. Jack Stockdale:

    Regarding a phrase you used in your article about “kombinować,” with due respect, I don’t believe “that’s a whole another story” is grammatically correct.

    I readily admit that I’ve sometimes caught myself (and at other times have been caught by my wife) saying, “that’s a whole ‘nother…”. Of course the word “nother” is not in the English dictionary.

    Probably the reason we end up mistakenly manufacturing a new word is that we take the word “another” and for emphasis insert the word “whole” between the first letter (a) and the rest of the word (nother).

    What we mean to say, and what is grammatically correct but nonetheless clumsy is “that is wholly another…” Better still to say “that is completely another…” Or one may simply say, “that is another”.

    As for kombinować, my wife and I (Americans living in Poznan) first learned the word from our Polish tutor. As she began to try to explain its meaning a slight grin broke across her face indicating to us a bit of what seemed to us at the time a bit of mischief mixed, perhaps, with some embarrassment.

    The example she used to illustrate the word was being stopped by a policeman for a traffic violation and using whatever verbal means at your disposal (including deceipt, untruth and offering him a bribe) to wriggle out of a fine.

    I do believe that Polish culture generally does not frown on lying to the degree that American culture does. I DO NOT IMPLY THAT AMERICANS DON’T LIE! But I can give you an example of an exercise out of the podręcznik I use in my Polish language course in which a guy lies to his coworkers to “fix” a situation in which he is late for work.
    IMO that would rarely IF EVER appear as something standard in an American workbook designed to teach people English.

    Just my thoughts.

    Jack in Poznań

  9. Chris Crachiola:

    Hello Anna,

    I just wanted to let you know that I finally made it to Poland. I have emailed you before talking about my Polish learning, and I may have mentioned that I was studying abroad in Germany [ go figure] but I finally made the trip to meet some of my extended family there. I have tried to document some of the MANY stories on my blog, and maybe you would like a look from a students perspective 🙂


    I always love reading your blog posts. One day I will get around to become decent at Polish!

  10. dks:

    I enjoyed reading the post and I can see that the website can be of use to my husband who is not Polish. If I can have one little piece of advice: it would help people like him, who don’t speak Polish at all, to be able to read how an actual Polish word is pronounced and what, as in this case, the difference is between kombinowac and kombinowanie (verb vs. noun). Keep up the good work!

  11. Margaret Phillips:

    I’d just like to say that whatever “kombinowanie” consists of, here in the UK, where we have had vast numbers of Polish people coming to work, visit or settle in recent years, the Poles have earned themselves an excellent reputation as honest, hardworking, concientious and trustworthy.

  12. olka:

    I think that kombinowanie runs through the fibers of many cultures. I’ve seen it done by Poles, Serbs, Russians, Germans, Canadians and Brits alike. Every lawyer does it. To me its just indicative of intellect and a critical mind. Whether or not it’s “good” is much too subjective to be evaluated.