When “witam” Is Not Welcomed Posted by Anna on Dec 18, 2009 in Culture, Polish Language
I have to tell you about something that happened this week. And after you hear this story, please tell me what you think…
So, I had to write an email to somebody. A perfect stranger. A person I’ve never met. A person who happens to hold an important position at one of the institutions of higher learning in Poland. I had an informal question to ask about Polish language materials.
Because the person is relatively young (younger than me, in fact) and because it was a rather general inquiry directed not necessarily to that particular person (as I wasn’t sure who would read my email), and because the name of the person was not included in the email address, I thought I should start my letter in a rather neutral manner with a rather neutral greeting in a rather non-committal way.
So, to keep things simple, I wrote “witam” in the header. And boy oh boy, apparently I screwed up. And screwed up big time.
I had no idea that there were such strict rules regarding this simple word. I’ve always thought that “witam” was a more polite way of saying “hello” (and yes, it can also mean “welcome”). Tons of people use “witam” as “hello” and I bet none of them ever got chewed out the way it’s happened to me.
Because apparently, by using “witam” to greet a stranger, I’m implying that I am more important than him/her, have higher standing and higher position and what not. In other words, that’s how the ruling class greets the paupers. And it rubbed my correspondent the wrong way. Big time.
My humble “witam” galled the person so much that in response I got a lecture on manners, culture (or my lack of it) and my totally inadequate qualifications to talk to others about the Polish language. Because apparently, according to my correspondent, if I can’t get such a simple thing as a proper greeting right, I am totally unsuitable for more involved conversations on topics such as grammar, spelling, and what it means to be Polish.
Przegięcie totalne, wouldn’t you say? A total overreaction, at least in my opinion.
But because I take such comments very seriously, I went searching for answers.
And when it comes to “witam”, the internet is not a good place to look for references. It seems that at least in cyberspace “witam” is a commonly accepted greeting.
But then I consulted “Poradnik poprawnej polszczyzny”, and wouldn’t you know it? In my face. According to the experts, I committed a terrible faux pas. By using “witam”, I made it clear that I think very highly of myself and consider myself superior to my correspondent.
And what do I think about all this? Those experts should just move on with the times and get a grip. Polish, just like any other language, is evolving, and it seems to me that those experts would like for it to stay in the middle ages.
What do you think? Was it an overreaction on the part of my correspondent, or am I really a classless snob who doesn’t know jack?