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Dear Sir/Madam: Writing Letters in Polish Posted by on Oct 8, 2008 in Culture

Yesterday I got an email from somebody, and I just about fell over while reading it. Luckily, I was sitting on a bed.

The email began with the words “Szanowna Pani!” which would be something like “Dear Madam” but much more pompous. “Szanowna Pani” ??? People still use this expression? Even young people? Dang, I must be so out of the loop, it’s scary. I have never heard this phrase being used by anyone younger than, say 65 years old, and not wearing a suit. The guy who wrote the email was about my age (and I’m not THAT old yet) and he wasn’t even a total stranger. True, this was his first email to me, and it was about business, and he did try to make a good impression, but still… I thought he totally overdid it with this “Szanowna Pani” stuff. This is the kind of language I see on papers from the Tax Office (Urząd Skarbowy), not from somebody who’s my peer.

On the other hand, I can’t really blame him, Polish can be a very formal language, heck, Polish IS a very formal language. And people may take offense when they’re not addressed properly.

A few months ago I was out with a group of friends and strangers, foreigners and Poles. I chatted with one lady in English, turned out she was Polish, so I switched to Polish. Because in English, I addressed her as “you”, I didn’t even think twice about using the same form in Polish – “ty”. She was my age and we were in a foreign country. Yet, her response was an icy stare and an even icier “Ja z tobą krów nie pasałam” (I didn’t tend cows with you) which is a nasty warning to a person talking to you (me in this case) that he/she has breached the magical Pan/Pani barrier. Apparently, that means you’re only allowed to use “you/ty” to people with whom you were tending cows at some point in the past, or somesuch. I should have begun referring to that woman as “Szanowna Pani” for the rest of the evening, but unfortunately I totally forgot about this ancient phrase.

Somehow the male equivalent “Szanowny Panie” (Dear Sir) and the plural “Szanowni Państwo” are easier to stomach, it’s only that unfortunate “Szanowna Pani” that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe because it’s a sign I’m getting old? Dunno…

So, how do you maneuver this minefield of Polish courtesy expressions? I asked several people and got several answers. This is more or less the general consensus:

  • 1. If you don’t know someone, address them as Pan/Pani (Sir, Madam)
  • 2. If you know someone, address them as Pan/Pani
  • 3. If the person you’re addressing is much, much younger than you, then you’re safe using “ty” (you).

We could write volumes on this Pan/Pani/ty business, and you betcha it will be continued. And here imagine me winking.

😉

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Comments:

  1. Grazyna:

    Szanowna Pani Anno! 😉

    Well, I find it quite bizzare that in a foreign land a Polish person would be offended if someone (who usually uses English, like you do) addressed them using the informal ‘ty’ rather than ‘pan/pani’ (it does happen to me here with the Poles I meet). On the other hand, if, back in Poland, a young(-ish) passer-by, eg. asked me for directions referring to me as ‘ty’, I’d feel weird and think that: either they’re not Polish, or they’re a bit cocky and want to be cool, or simply think I am much younger than they are. The latter one would be an obvious compliment! 🙂 In formal/business context it is quite natural to see a greeting ‘Szanowna Pani’ or ‘Szanowny Panie’, which is simply a respectful form of addressing someone. It’s just another cultural thing… It’s a bit like here, in the UK, you wouldn’t come to an job interview greeting the interviewer ‘Hiya mate! Wassup?!’ 😉
    The situation I found totally uncomfortable was when, years ago, I was teaching in the high school I had attended in the past myself. Suddenly, the teachers (now my colleagues) who’d used to teach me started addressing me: ‘Pani Grazyno’… It felt strange.. Equally hard was it for me to follow their request and address them using ‘ty’, as, in my head, they were still my teachers….
    Surely, the English way seems to be so much less complicated in this field 🙂

  2. Thomas Westcott:

    Pani Anna,

    This is one of your better posts as it shows both language / vocabulary and some of the cultural influences. I especially like your indicating that it is generally safe to use Pan or Pani.

    Another form of address to be aware of is Panna. As I understand it Panna has been used as Miss i.e. an unmarried woman. This is out of style because Pan / Mister does not indicate whether a man is married or not; So (as I Have been told!) why should POLISH WOMEN use the female form that does? Therefore Pani is now used for any adult woman – married or not. And Panna is still sometimes used for females not yet adult that is teenage girls or on a special formal occasion for a female child.

    In English we would use Miss as a formal address to a girl, as an address to any unmarried woman (regardless of age), and quit often as address to a waitress or (female) store clerk regardless of matrimonial state.

    Another use of Pani is to translate it as lady. So one would be using ‘Lady’ as a form of address like a title. For the masculine one would use ‘sir’.

  3. Anna:

    Hi Thomas!
    I’m glad you liked it! I’ve been trying to implement all the suggestions and hopefully, you will find more interesting stuff here 🙂
    Now, when it comes to “Panna” this is only used on official documents to select one’s marital status, and “Panna” means – miss – as in never married. Polish documents tend to be very specific in this matter, I’ve heard about applications being rejected, because someone (ahem ahem, she’s writing it) wrote “single” (stan wolny) instead of “Panna”.

    Hi G!
    You crack me up, you know that? LOL! Honestly, I have not received a letter with “Szanowna Pani” in the last 10 years. When I do get something, normally it goes straight to: “Pani Anno, blah blah blah…” or “Z przykrością informujemy Panią, że blah blah blah…” without any pleasantries. 😉

  4. pinolona:

    Oh no! The other day I booked a room by email starting with ‘Szanowna Pani’. It worked, but I bet there were giggles at reception.

    I’m terrible at formal/informal in foreign languages, particularly since it doesn’t exist in English and because the formality divide is subtly different in each language. I usually use Pan/Pani if I’m not sure, but this has definitely led to ridicule in some cases!

    Moving back to English: from time to time I get letters and emails from non-native English speakers addressed to ‘Mrs’. This is definitely a risky step to take! What’s wrong with ‘Ms’? I know it smacks of 70s feminism but it’s better than taking a shot in the dark about someone’s marital status!

  5. Anna:

    Hi Pi!
    Nice to see you here! I’ve been lurking over on your blog on and off for a while – it’s in my faves now.
    And I SO agree with you on this Mrs thing. But I think those folks mean well, after all in some countries it’s more “honorable” to be called a Mrs than a Miss, or a Ms. And many non-native speakers don’t even know about the “Ms” option. Teach them, lady! You hear me? 😉

  6. Fran Turner:

    Hi Anna,

    So, let’s say that we have just met and you are being formal and addressing me as Pani. I, however, even if I am a bit older, would like you to be less formal and just use “ty”. Is there an expression that I could use to suggest this? How would I suggest that we “tend cows together”?

    Thanks

    Fran

  7. Anna:

    Hi Fran!
    You could simply say “proszę mówić mi na ty” or “proszę mówić mi po imieniu” or if you want to ask “czy możemy przejść na ty?” But chances are that the person will still address you as “Pani” while asking you to use their name/ty when you talk to them.

  8. Pszetfurnia:

    We’d rather say “proszę mówić mi ty”. And don’t you think “per ty” is worth mentioning here? 🙂 🙂

  9. andrew wrobel:

    nie do wiary
    I mean what a misunderstanding

    take it easy
    It is a normal language.
    It is not even official – it is just polite.

    I personally take your posting as a critique of our customary way of expressing ourselves in letters.
    You need to get used to it or get over it.
    You are in a foreign land!

  10. susana:

    Hello everybody:
    I am trying to findo some help. I would like to know how to get in touch with offices in Poland who can get me some documents. My grandma is from Poland and I live in Uruguay. Thank you

  11. Ferdinand Gajewski:

    I too was horribly shocked years ago when someone in America whom I know well addressed me in Polish using the second person singular. It isn’t done. Mon dieu.

  12. Ferdinand Gajewski:

    PS Even the word “God,” in Polish, is preceded by “Pan.”

  13. prettylala:

    I’m rather surprised by someone being surprised at the expression “Szanowna Pani” being used in an e-mail. Even though nowadays “Witam” has become very popular, it is still frowned upon when writing a formal e-mail. I would say that those who don’t understand the necessity of formality in certain situations, such as e-mailing a person you don’t know or you have addressed per “Pan/Pani” up till now, would use this “newer” expression.
    Maybe it’s also the evolution of the language = informal becomes acceptable or it’s due to just about anyone being accepted into universities and using their informal regional language in their academic life and later moving to the large cities where they continue their habits (lets face it higher education isn’t what it used to be), most likely both had their share.

    Also, “Szanowna Pani” + academic title or sometimes without, is used in e-mails from students to professors, obviously after you’ve become more familiar with the person you may use something less formal as a simple “Dzień Dobry”

    If you’re talking to someone older (15years+) you may try to evade the subject until you hear “ty” or “Pani” from them, if the situation is formal, you should still use “Pan/Pani” if not (let’s say you meet someone at a language course) then I suggest going along with what they used, until you get know each other better. If it’s someone who looks 50-60 always use “Pan/Pani”.

    I’d say in most cases the formal expressions are always safer especially when you don’t know who you’re dealing with.

  14. Steve:

    As an English speaker that doesn’t know Polish I just say Thank You at the end of the message. I have no idea what greeting to use.

  15. Deana Damone:

    I think one of your advertisings triggered my browser to resize, you might want to put that on your blacklist.