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When “witam” Is Not Welcomed Posted by 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?

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Comments:

  1. russ:

    The idea of getting so angry that you would lecture someone on how they’ve insulted you by simply typing “witam” is really laughably absurd to me as a non-Pole. It seems like someone with a chip on their shoulder, always ready to be offended.

    This obsession (for some Poles, evidently not for you) with politeness/respect levels and precise word choice to reflect them is something I don’t understand about Polish culture. So many younger generation Poles have told me they wish Polish didn’t have all the pan/pani crap and you could just say talk to people with “ty” like “you” in English instead of having to worry about what exact word to use for a person, taking into account their age, sex, relationship to you, to show proper respect/obeisance/whatever, blah blah blah, that I wonder if Polish culture is evolving to get more mellow about this politeness/respect level stuff, but I don’t know.

  2. Beata:

    I am in shock right now (and not only because you were reproved so rudely and severely).

    I sent my first email to a Polish person I did not know personally about 2 years ago. Not being sure how to translate the casual “hello” (“czesc” sounded too familiar), I opted for the safe French way of “bonjour” or in this case “dzien dobry”.
    I received my reply with a greeting of “witam!” and since then many others, from other Poles, but always starting with “witam” (serdecznie, goraco itd).

    I am surprised to learn that your contact is a young person – he seems totally out of touch with the present!

  3. Michael:

    I think in Rome you must do as the romans do. Kind of like my house my rules kind of stuff.

    Although in my opinion it is never correct to be impolite to strangers who have meant no harm, he definitely overreacted. You are definitely qualified to tell us about Polish grammar etc., because you come at it from the same perspective as we do. Also that he expected you to know better proves in a round about way that you do have a good grasp of the Polish language. If I wrote to him he would know I was only a beginner and wouldn’t complain so strongly I think.

    About being Polish, at the moment I think there are culturally two kinds of Poles, Poles living abroad and those living in Pland. Both with equally legitimate sets of beliefs and attitudes. At this stage a part of being Polish is nearly that you don’t live in your own country.

    Can you tell us if you would do it again now that you know better? 🙂

  4. Sylwia B.:

    I was using this form almost everytime when I was writing to the person I didn’t know personally, who was older than me, who was representing company… to be honest, this is the first time that I hear/read using WITAM in e-mail correspondence is inappriopriate…
    But I started to search – and yes – it is not polite to use this word in the official e-mails because:
    1. we can’t describe the gender of the person who we direct e-mail to. There is no gender in WITAM. If we write Szanowna Pani, Szanowny Panie, we know the gender (lady or man), in case we don’t know the gender we should write – Szanowni Państwo (Dear Sirs) or Dzień dobry (Good morning).
    2. “witam” is more appriopriate for the host – in the sense that if somebody is coming to our house, we can say – WITAM, but not, when we are guests. It is related a little bit to this what you wrote about having higher position.
    3. we can say “witam” when we are face to face with the person.

    However I do believe that the reaction was too big.
    And thanks for this interesting post!

  5. pinolona:

    That’s utterly crazy! But people write ‘witam’ in emails the whole time!!
    Plus it’s extremely bad manners and shows a lack of culture to get offended because you think you should be addressed in a higher register: surely a sign of true good manners is modesty and humility?! I think this person – who you said is younger than you, and you’re hardly elderly – has ended up in a position of responsibility very young and has a serious case of swollen head…

  6. David:

    I have to agree with Beata. I would think this kind of reaction would come from a much older person who is still stuck in the tradition of the past and cannot move forward. I have corresponded with many younger Poles and have never had the reaction you have received. I have seen this type of attitude more in governmental institutions I have had to visit for various reasons but, by and large, the younger generation is much more flexible than the older generation. Poland is certainly changing and along with that change should be a change in attitude when dealing with people.

  7. basia:

    wow, sounds like you ran into a first class *upek.

    We forget sometimes that inhabitants of the “academic ivory tower” don’t really live in the real world. I’m sure wearing a robe all day long has altered his perceptions.

    But, ultimately the man is a “gatekeeper” and gatekeeprs have power. So you need to scrape and bow, suck and blow to get what you need unfortunately.

    Generally speaking, I think Poles are overly obsessed with status and titles anyway. i.e. pani inzynier, pani doktor, pan rektor. In my parents’ generation, the female SPOUSES of doctors and engineers required others to address them as “pani inzynier-add ending”. Pretty ridiculous really.

  8. Marek:

    I’m curious now – I’ve been writing ‘Witam’ as a greeting in e-mails for a long time, as a student to my teachers, and to strangers – and nobody has ever pointed it out as being wrong.

    It makes me wonder what the correct alternative greeting would be instead. “Szanowny/Drogi Panie X” is one that comes to mind, but it feels rather like overkill for general correspondence to, for example, some dude on allegro I want to buy something from, or a lecturer at college I see every day. What if you don’t know the gender of your addressee? Szanowne Państwo makes me sound like a corporation or a bank writing to a client.

    A brief peek into my received mails gives me the suspicion that “Witam Pana” works as a balance between. Then again, there are those who argue that greetings are not required for e-mails and that they can be omitted.

  9. PK:

    Well, that academic wasted what we call a teachable moment to thank you for the inquiry, answer your questions, and add a by-the-way, regarding the use of witam, you might want to be aware that its use can be misconstrued in the following situations. Bah humbug. You might try responding with effusive thanks for helping you so kindly to understand the nuances of the use of the greeting witam. Make him squirm a little!

    Phyllis

  10. John:

    I am constantly being lectured by my Polish wife when I am in Poland when I make the mistake of addressing doctors, professionals and even store clerks as “ty” as we do in America. I must remember to use “Pan,” “Pani” or “Pan Doctor” and not “ty.” I laugh it off, but then again my Polish is very elementary. I have to laugh at my brother-in-law who gets upset when he is referred to as only the lowly husband of “Pani Nauczycielka.” I also once knew an American Pole who refused to use the word “Prosze” because he was not about “to beg” anyone for anything.

  11. Holly Em:

    It’s probably a moot point to judge rudeness across cultures, but your accuser has at least misjudged your motives. As far a being qualified to talk about learning the Polish language, if you have the humility and courage to learn from your mistakes and to share those lessons with your readers, then I’d say you’re qualified beyond someone with only technical expertise.

  12. Malcolm Rutter:

    When we communicate in person, there is usually a lot of emotional signalling in the way things are said. Email hasn’t got that. This sometimes results in misinterpretations, one of which is misinterpreting what you meant when you said it. A possible result of this is “flaming”, where one or both of the participants feels wounded.
    I try to talk face-to-face when I can. If I’m involved in a flaming incident, I try and shrug it off. I’m not always successful! Keeping things factual and explaining sometimes helps.

  13. James:

    I think it’s time Poland dragged itself screaming and shouting into the 21st century. It’s fine to have a language and a culture of which you are proud, but this business of different forms of address offending people is beyond me. I am learning to speak Polish in the UK and I address all the Poles I meet informally and insist they do the same to me. Quite frankly I don’t want to be called ‘ pan’. I was given a Christian name to be called by that name. By the way please can we have more Polish grammar blogs. They are really helpful , but there simply aren’t enough of them.

  14. PamelaJaye:

    Hi,
    total stranger dropping by here (also not Polish)
    I have a question which you may or may not know the answer to (cause it’s about France, not Poland)

    Your post reminded of how, in High School French, we got a detailed explanation of who is to be introduced to who, but also, the explanation that one uses “vous” to address a singular person that one does not know well – unless they are a child.
    I just wonder , considering the reaction here, is this* still done, in France (or in French)?
    Not that I plan on speaking French to anyone any time soon.

    *Vous, not the introduction thing.

  15. Mchl:

    Guy’s clearly overreacted IMHO. Probably has low self esteem or something. Or perhaps he actually is a descendand of some king or another.

    Anyway, I use ‘witam’ all the time, and never got any complaints.

  16. Mchl:

    @PamelaJaye: Yes, as far as I know, ‘vous’ is still in wide use in French, although much less among young people than it used to. Anyway, I annoy my teacher of French, who – being younger than me – insists on me addressing her using ‘toi’, while I stick with ‘vous’ 😀

  17. Waldemar Kochany:

    Hello 😉

    Indeed, your deed did not did a didy didy.

    Nie, gość miał po prostu zły dzień i dał drobny pokaz chamstwa, żeby się na kimś wyżyć. Albo sfrustrowany. Nie przejmuj się i witaj w dżungli kultury polskiej 🙂

  18. Ania:

    Kiedy niedawno zadałam proste pytanie o użycie Pan/Pani, również zostałam poinformowana przez krakowskiego profesora, że nauka języka to nie tylko uczenie się gramatyki, ale również kultury danego kraju i stąd obowiązują ścisłe zasady używania Pan/Pani we wszelkich okolicznościach. Zostałam także poinstruowana o zapoznaniu się z jakimś podręcznikiem polskiego językowego savoir vivre’u, żeby poprawić swoje kompetencje językowe. Na moje szczęście na początku e-maila napisałam “Dzień dobry” – uff….

    P.S. Z wykształcenia jestem nauczycielem polskiego.

  19. paweł:

    I really hate all those prescriptive grammarians with their pretensional book-speak.

    As you said, language is living. It’s not correct what Mr Miodek says is correct. It’s all about how people speak.

    In Toruń, where I come from, people use the very handy “jo” word. You can all say it’s very peasant of me, but I insist on using it.
    Also to annoy my Polish teacher, who I hope will be turning in her grave:)

  20. lawrence:

    so where is the word WITAJ used ?

  21. hanok:

    i don`t see any an overreaction on the part of your correspondent.It’s all about how people speak.

  22. xyz:

    Not an overreaction, just making his annoyance too visible perhaps, especially in the academic context. But the “witam” thing is not really a matter of “thinking highly of oneself”. It’s just that in the academic world, you do not, EVER, address people with a degree higher than yours in such a way. And to those talking of “the middle ages” – come on… It’s basic “university” politeness, nothing too difficult. Polish people learn that when they enter a university of sorts – they have to learn how to address certain people, if you say/write “witam” to a worker of a school of higher education, it’s just plain embarrassing.
    “Szanowny/a/i Panie/Pani/Państwo” – that’s the right way. It’s a matter of respect, not a convention.
    Same with writing to your boss, an executive of a company et cetera. But while your boss will just think of you as rude when you write “witam”, a university worker will think you’re rude AND uneducated :).

    And remember : no surnames. “Szanowny Panie Kowalski” sounds bad too.

  23. Goury:

    I agree with XyX

    I would never address a stranger with “witam”, especially if this person may hold a higher social position than me. I know that “witam” is becoming very popular but, as a traditionalist, I think that Szanowny Panie/Szanowna Pani is the most polite and the safest way to go.

    With that said, I think that your interlocutor overreacted. Even if you did offend him, he should have remained calm and polite.

  24. maqnolia:

    I am polish and there is nothing wrong about witam. Few days ago I sent an e mail to polish office with some question and their reaction was very similar but in nicer way. I have never responded them back because as a polish person o definitely think there is no reason to get offended.
    Sorry you got that bad experience. Customer service in Poland is much lower than in USA. They don’t appreciate a customer because there are less choices than here.

    If you have any questions about polish language I can definitely help you.

  25. Kuba:

    Just a comment to James — if you’re speaking their language you have to play by their rules. You as a nonnative speaker are not in a position to decide what’s appropriate.

    Imagine a foreigner insisted you address him as “dude” because he liked the casual sound of it. You would feel ridiculous.

  26. @maqnolia (i'm a business English translator btw):

    Oh please, what kind of nonsense is that.
    There IS something “wrong” with witam, namely: you don’t use it in the academic environment to address a professor. I’m not defending the person who overreacted, they could’ve been politely, but hey, maybe they had a bad day and the OP was the 10th person that day who didn’t know how to speak/write. I imagine this might be annoying. Or maybe the person’s just an asshole in general to everybody all the time, shit happens. Nevertheless, they were right: there are appropriate ways of address and you should do your research and use them.
    You (maqnolia) are writing about business relations and that’s a whole different world.
    Moreover, you’re not a “customer” in the higher education setting in Poland, unless it’s a private school.
    Glad you’re an expert on the psychology of customer service in both Poland and the USA, as well. /sarcasm
    And @ some other commenters: nice ethnic stereotyping there, mein Fuhrer.

  27. Nicole:

    Hi!

    I was wondering how to say hello in Polish, used an online translator, and got “witam”. Wondering if it was ok I got to read your story. Wow. I think that person who was mad at you overreacted. Maybe he had a bad day, who knows. He should have just told you the correct way to say hello. 🙁

  28. Synthia Barios:

    In this grand scheme of things you’ll receive an A with regard to effort and hard work. Where you actually misplaced me personally ended up being on the specifics. As they say, the devil is in the details… And that couldn’t be much more accurate in this article. Having said that, permit me reveal to you what exactly did do the job. Your text is certainly quite convincing which is most likely the reason why I am taking the effort in order to opine. I do not really make it a regular habit of doing that. Secondly, although I can see a jumps in logic you come up with, I am definitely not convinced of just how you seem to connect your details that make the actual final result. For right now I will, no doubt subscribe to your issue but hope in the foreseeable future you actually connect your facts much better.

  29. Hyman November:

    I think one of your adverts caused my browser to resize, you may well want to put that on your blacklist.

  30. Maduras:

    Salut, super pour ce petit résumé, il est attirant. Notre thème se ressemble, pour cela Je te fais un petit lien si tu n’y vois pas d’incommodité. Cordialement.

    http://www.videosdemaduras.xxx

  31. Joanna:

    The person who criticized your use of “Witam!” was right in what they said. They were extremely wrong in the manner they said it.
    All Polish nationals who use “witam” as you did, simply do not follow good manners – probably went to poor quality schools or were very poor students.

  32. Cindy:

    I just bought an adorable slate sign hanging on leather with a beautiful rooster on it for my kitchen. At the top is written “Witany”. Gosh, I hope no one yells at me for welcoming them into my kitchen. Ridiculous! These days everyone seems so easily offended. That brilliant scholar never should have dressed you down like that. What a pompous ass!

  33. rebeccaofsunnybrookfarm:

    I learned Witamy from the sign, on the awning, at the BP gas station, in Siemianowice 41-100.
    .
    I used it in an SMS-text, to invite someone to come to my apartment for tea, once; in April 2016.
    He duly came.
    .
    The End !
    .
    (I am not learning any more languages)
    Sayōnara !

  34. Dieter Verhofstadt:

    Once upon a time, when working at IBM, I called a French colleague. At that time I was still working my way up the scale of masterinng French and I made the “unforgivable” mistake fo addressing him with “tu” instead of “vous”. I got lectured in the most angry fashion. I pulled myself together and continued the conversation in Dutch. Of course he was at a loss for words, be it polite or rude. So we changed back to French and all was fine.

  35. andybruziewicz:

    “Witam” is perfectly acceptable and normal way of polite greeting in Polish. I use it fairly frequently and never had adverse reaction. What you have encounter is an oddity rather than reflection of general sentiment.

  36. Jan:

    Well, those are basics of Polish language and proper communication. You can as well go and talk to some young Brits in some random mall about politeness and adequate form of communication and what would they say? That they are all speaking in RP accent? Or maybe that they love the etiquette?

    It is laughable that you even use “young Poles preffering to say you to everybody” as an argument. Every youngster would answer that he is sick of grammar, proper structures and manners. Like literally. Why do you even start that dispute with such statement. You try to make an image of Polish language that is strict to the rules etc – the question is what is wrong with it? Should we all disrespect our own heritage and start using slang? That is ridiculous.

    And you think you were scolded without reason – imagine using casual language to one of your seniors in Japan. I would love tosee how you bring shame to your name by doing so.

    If you can not accept basic rules, but try to blame others for being “overreacting” then well…. Try to disrespect culture of others some more and pretend to be “well-educated citizen of the world”.

    Good Luck

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