Polish Sense of Humor or Lack Thereof Posted by on Apr 28, 2009 in Culture

I went to Grycan today (yeah, czas na lody – time for ice cream) with one of my pals and he (oh, hi Martin!) had some interesting things to say about how he perceives our (as in: Polish) sense of humor. But before I proceed any further, just to make things absolutely clear – Martin is German. That will explain many things, I’m sure. I hope.

He reads this blog and he even left maybe two comments once upon a time, sometime last year. But he’s been a keen, faithful reader since this blog began, and because he was passing through my town this week, we decided to meet for coffee (or rather – ice cream).

So, we ate ice cream and talked. And here’s the kicker – based on the comments left on this blog by my Polish readers, Martin says that we, as a nation, give the impression of having no sense of humor whatsoever. What puzzles him is that Poles have a great sense of humor if one deals with them in person, he says.

Apparently, judging from the comments on this blog, we come across as a dull nation obsessed with grammar and taking immense pleasure in pointing out other people’s (Poles) mistakes. He says that this linguistic one-upmanship can be rather amusing for an outsider to watch.

Yikes! Are we really THAT bad? If so, I sincerely apologize, just in general on behalf of all my Polish readers and commenters.

But then Martin went on to say that fortunately, Polish people are quite delightful and funny when you talk to them in person. Now, that’s better! With that, I can completely agree.

What I think the problem is, is that Poles have a very specific sense of humor, one that is not so easily understood by non-natives. Of course, that a sense of humor can be country-specific is true of pretty much any nation in the world, even including Germans.

I’d be the first one to admit that we tend to laugh at things that may seem… well… strange, I guess. Anyone (anyone foreign, that is) who has ever tried to watch “Sami swoi” knows exactly what I’m talking about. My husband to this day doesn’t understand what’s so funny about this film.

So, here’s a very serious question to my non-Polish readers – do we, Poles, have a sense of humor? Or don’t? And how does it come across to foreigners?

  • poczucie humoru – sense of humor
  • dowcip (masc., plural: dowcipy) – joke (the kind you tell others)
  • kawał (masc., plural: kawały) – literally: piece, lump (rather larger), colloquially: joke (the kind you tell others).
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  1. expateek:

    I think Polish people have a fantastic sense of humour (except for my landlord in Zoliborz, but that’s a whole different story!) Really, to a person Poles were charming, ever ready to laugh, and immensely funny once you get to know them. I would say they are, however, a bit more cautious at first… wanting to make sure that it’s really comfortable and safe to laugh. After that bridge has been crossed, well! Let the guffawing begin!

  2. Anna:

    Expateek, I’m SO glad you say that! I was really afraid for a while there that we come across as a bunch of boring freaks. I think that it’s the “once you get to know them” bit that some foreigners may have a hard time getting past.

    And about landlords, say, did your old one move to Gdańsk, by any chance? I think that Polish landlords are a whole different species of their own. Or not even Polish, this may be just a landlord thing.

  3. Garrett Ferguson:

    Tak jest, Poles have a sense of humor! That’s actually the way I realized that I started really understanding Polish was when I actually understood the jokes.

  4. Anglopole:

    Anna, the reality is just like you said, we do have a sense of humour but because it is interlinked with the Polish culture, language, history, etc. it simply is hard to understand for people who are not Poles or haven’t lived among Poles long enough to get why we see some things as funny. Poles (and other nationals) living in the UK often say that the British have a weird sense of humour – they simply don’t understand or like the British sense of humour. On the other hand, I met quite a few people here who, once aware I am Polish, told me that they think we have a great sense of humour. The Polish sense of humour was the first thing that came to their mind when talking to me….
    Your husband doesn’t understand the humour of ‘Sami Swoi’ and I can appreciate that – I am sure many Poles would have a problem enjoying Japanese comedies or jokes, unless they understand the context of the humour… etc. etc. I have learnt one thing living in the UK, we cannot assume people would understand our sense of humour abroad and it is better to be cautious when cracking jokes as one might end up in trouble. 🙂

  5. russ:

    Sure, plenty of Poles I know have a sense of humor. But I agree with the first comment by expateek, about “once you get to know them.” There is also a bit of serious formality and too much solemn ceremony in some circumstances that are not so casual.

    A similar issue is that Poles don’t seem to smile much if they’re not with friends. When hanging out with friends, we smile and laugh and joke (regardless of what language we’re speaking).

    But when I walk around on the streets and see strangers, so many people have scowling frowning faces avoiding eye contact compared to some places I’ve been, where people would smile and nod to strangers. I know some Poles who lived in the US and also commented about this and ruefully agreed that Poles don’t seem to smile very much when not talking with friends.

    Do other readers of your blog notice this? What do you think?

  6. michael:

    I am afraid that the Poles I know are moany but I only know them from a work environment. I don’t understand Polish enough to understand their jokes but they do have the crack between themselves.

    One other thing, they would die for money, they are always thinking about money, some of them are in danger of becoming money addicts.

  7. Thomas F. Westcott:


    Try this pun:

    Biały broń jest nie biały.

    Być może czerwony jak krew
    Być może głęboko niebo granatowy
    Być może bardzo wypolerowany
    Być może czarny jak zimno serce
    Ale nigdy jest biały broń biały.

    🙂 Thomas

  8. khrystene:

    Poles have a fabulous sense of humour, it just doesn’t always translate well, like English humour to Poles. It’s very dark and based on real life, which is why I like it so much.

    I do find though that we can be incredible whingers when it comes to the public arena, and far too often lack in humour when someone is criticising something Polish, even if it’s something we complain about on a daily basis. I think it comes down to low national self-esteem.

    If only Polish films had (good or ANY) subtitles, then perhaps the rest of the world would come to understand the Polish psyche a little better… and even like it! 😉

  9. A. P.:

    I’m a student of Polish, and I remember a joke that some Polish acquaintances told me which I totally didnt get, something like “the women went to the doctor but the doctor was a woman”. It seemed to crack them up, but I did not and do not understand it. If you know of this joke, could it be explained?

    Thanks 🙂

  10. Anna:

    that’s the famous “poszła baba do doktora, a doktor też baba.” And to be honest, out of the many “poszła baba do doktora” jokes, this one I have to say, I don’t get either.
    I’ve been asked to explain this joke before, and I never know what to say, though this translation “A broad went to the doctor, and the doctor’s broad, too” seems to make some people laugh. But that’s not what it says in the Polish version…
    But it’s the same with most jokes, they tend to be very country-specific.

  11. A. P.:

    Ok, thanks, glad to hear I’m not missing out on something!

    Although if you were to say, “A broad went to the doctor, but the doctor was abroad” it could become a sort of groanworthy pun…

  12. Ina:

    It’s funny because the word “doctor” in Polish is masculine. And although it is used for both sexes, the first thought that comes to mind is that the doctor would be a man. That’s all there is to it. Hope that helps.

  13. russ:

    Seriously? That’s the joke? Just a sexist joke about how wacky and funny it is that a doctor might be a woman?

  14. Thomas Cremers:

    Of course they have a sense of humor! My wife is Polish and she decided to marry me, if that’s not good for a laugh I don’t know what is.

    I visit Poland every 2 months I meet up with friends and go to my Polish language course in Wrocław. We have loads of laugh and find my self hardly ever wondering what the joke was about as foreigner (I’m Dutch).

  15. ola:

    The Broad/Doctor joke – God! How does one explain…?!
    Humour is so complex. A good line, and, above all, punch-line lies in the delivery and the delivery is as much about rhythm and timing as content. You can tell the same joke and it will land flat unless you punctuate it just right.
    Poszla baba do lekarza is a play on this. Though it’s so hard to explain, we all feel instinctively when something lands right and when it dosen’t. The “baba” joke became so popular because, even though it’s completely surreal, you simply can’t get it wrong. The whole joke is simply one perfectly timed punch line. It’s not funny because of any sexist undertone, it just “sounds” funny. It “lands” just right.
    If there’s one conclusion to be made it’s that the Polish sense of humor is often based on the surreal – and that’s something we share with the Brits. It is also why Monty Python has always been hugely successful in Poland.

  16. magdaLena:

    Hi, I’m Polish and I think sense of humour depends only on the personality, character of that particular person. You will laugh at something stupid and funny for you but other people won’t. There is no rule, but all in all I think that we have a great sense of humour, especially when we meet with our close friends, because then we feel that we can say whatever we want to.

  17. LMB:

    I had enough of Germany and its boredom, and I did the easiest thing – moved out.

    Now I live in München 🙂