Polish Language Blog

Surviving the First Hello Posted by on Feb 20, 2010 in Culture

Another totally awesome post by our resident guest blogger – Adam.

We will get back to being cool in Poland in my next post. This time, inspired by the adventures of some newbies to Poland, I would like to tackle the issue of being polite.

The rules on how you behave vary from country to country. In Britain, for instance, it is customary to acknowledge the presence of another person, but try not to be invasive. There you would be asked, “How are you?” and you would reply that everything is fine. Which is their way of saying hello.

This would be unthinkable in Poland.

In Poland you should only ask how someone is (jak się masz?), only if you REALLY care. Not just to say hello. Because you will hear the real answer. And you can hear any sort of answer.

Some people might go into very personal details of their family situation, finance, health, or whatever – which might make you feel uncomfortable. The most common and the most polite way in Poland is to complain. If anyone ever asks you how you are, here is a list of popular complaints:

  • – to co się dzieje w polityce przechodzi ludzkie pojęcie! (politics is going mad!)
  • – mam bóle głowy (I have headaches)
  • – te dziury w drogach, nie da się żyć w tym kraju (look at the potholes, it’s impossible to live in this country)
  • – przez te korki marnuję pół dnia! (I’m wasting half a day stuck in traffic!)
  • – szef mnie nie lubi (my boss doesn’t like me)
  • – jak tu utrzymać trójkę dzieci, kiedy płacą ludziom marne grosze (how does one feed three kids when they pay you peanuts)
  • – nic ciekawego nie pokazują w telewizji (there’s nothing good on tv these days)

And on the other hand, the worst social faux-pas is to brag. You should never talk about how great your financial situation is, how wonderful your life is, how much your partner loves you, or your newest promotion – especially to a person you don’t know very well, like a neighbor. People just will be stunned, or think you’re a bouffon. If there is nothing bad going on in your life, which you could complain about, go for “jako tako” (I’m doing so-so) or “okej” (O.K.).

The correct way to say hello in Poland is to actually say hello. Dzień dobry (good morning), dobry wieczór (good evening), cześć (hi!), witam (hi!). And remember the golden rule: don’t care – don’t ask. If you want to be polite to a stranger, make some general observation – about the weather, surroundings, or recent news.

Another thing an English speaker should keep in mind, is that the Polish language sounds monotonous. The accent almost always falls on the second-to-last syllable. There is little variation in intonation or melody. Therefore, when a Polish person asks a question, expresses sympathy or compassion – not much of this is reflected in the tone of their voice. A simple question “Może jeszcze herbaty?” (would you like more tea?) might sound rude.

Most of our readers are probably well aware of the custom of addressing grown-ups as Pan/Pani (Sir/Madam) rather than ty (you). However, if you meet someone who is addressed in a special way due to their position or occupation, it is polite if you do it, too. Here’s an example: if you meet a priest (ksiądz), even though you are an atheist (ateista), it would be polite to address him as “ksiądz” rather than Pan: “Proszę księdza…“, “Co słychać u księdza?“, etc.

Anyway, jak się macie czytelnicy i czytelniczki Polskiego Bloga? 🙂

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  1. kuba:

    Mam bardzo dobrze, slonce mam jest 65 F.
    Wszystko tu jest ok itd.

    pa pa


  2. Sofia:

    Mam sie dobrze, dzienkuje pani za pytanie! 🙂 Prawie pisze zadanie domowe polskiego. Jusz studowalam 8 mesiacow i bardzo podoba mi sie jezyk polski, jest ciekawy i wymagajacy, ale nie ZA. Teraz chcialam studiowac tez inne jezyki slowianskie, ale boje sie, ze wtedy bede zapominal polski. Ale chyba niekedy w przyszlosci!

    Dzienkuje bardzo za interesujacy blog, pozdrowienia z zimnej Finlandii!

  3. Paulina:

    Well written! But I would say that “jak się masz?” or “co słychać?” could be used as hello. Some people can complain immediately but many will just answer “dobrze”‘. If you’re not familiar with your interlocutor you don’t have to say anything more. And don’t expect always a true answer.

    Hopefully Polish attitute to bragging will change because it’s ridiculous that we avoid positive information about ourselves.

  4. Adam:

    14 D
    21 A
    37 E
    trafiony zatopiony!


  5. Michael:

    lol, your post is too late! I jak się maszed a receptionist once! 🙂 it is funny to think of it now because she was surprised.

    Anyway I think just because we are learning Polish doesn’t mean we should copy the Polish way 100%. What do you think?

  6. thomas westcott:

    The goal is communications not conformity.

    I even understood “maszed.” That is a neat language trick – turning a phrase into a verb.

  7. Adam:

    Should people learning Polish copy the Polish way?

    That is an interesting question, and definetely something to think about. My aim was just to give a quick advice. Don’t take this as ordering people what to do. I explain how most people here tend to behave and react. There are some cultural differences, and it could be useful to know them. This could help some learners experience Poland.

    “Jak się masz?” is in my opinion also not a very popular thing to say anyway. It is a copy of “How are you?” and it seems to me it would be possible to hear it from Polish-Americans and foreign People in Poland. It just doesn’t seem a very Polish thing to say. People would rather use: “Co u Ciebie słychać?” – that is when they know someone already, and they haven’t seen them for a while.

    I would still advise to conform to local customs. I think it would be equally baffling for an Englishman in England, if I started compainig asked “How are you?”. It wouldn’t be a crime against humanity, but it it would be seen as odd.

    Of course no one has to complain as I suggest in my post, you can say positive things connected with some recent things that happened in your life. It would only be a bad idea to be TOO positive. It is all about making your interlocutor comfortable. If you are much more better off or lucky, and tell them, they would become uncomfortable. If you compain about insignificant things you cam complain about it together. And it brings you closer.

  8. Dwd:

    Very helpful! And spot on, much of it. But I’m not sure about this:
    “the Polish language sounds monotonous. The accent almost always falls on the second-to-last syllable. There is little variation in intonation or melody. Therefore, when a Polish person asks a question, expresses sympathy or compassion – not much of this is reflected in the tone of their voice.”
    Well, I’d say everything is in there – the intonation can tell you a lot about if the person really wants to get the answer, is interested in your situation, if they just want to appera polite or really care and so on. I’m not sure, maybe it’s all too subtle to pick up for everyone. I do pick it up, no problem. And it’s very useful knowledge!