Dear Sir/Madam: Writing Letters in Polish Posted by Anna 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.
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.