Two Poles, Three Opinions

The saying ‘gdzie dwóch Polaków tam trzy opinie‘ (two Poles, three opinions) summarizes how Poles love to argue and rarely agree with one another. Apparently, it originated in 1791 when Poles certainly had a lot to discuss – the new constitution, the threat of partitions by Russia, Prussia and Austria, the conflicting interests of magnates, nobles and peasants…you can’t blame Poles for being argumentative at a time like that!

It’s quite the opposite in the UK. The equivalent expression in the UK, would be ‘Two Brits, One Opinion‘. In the UK, we build trust by agreeing on something trivial, e.g. the weather, traffic, sport etc. This is the purpose of ‘small talk’ – when both parties agree that it’s nice weather for ducks (i.e. it’s raining), then they know that the other party is open to agreement and the conversation can move on to more challenging subjects.

Indeed, in the UK, we rarely openly disagree with anyone. Disagreement is expressed as if you were actually agreeing (I hear what you say, I agree up to a point) even though we’re actually disagreeing. We even use the word ‘agreeable’ to describe a nice, reasonable person.

In Poland, disagreement is expressed much more directly and from the very beginning of an interaction. It’s how Poles build trust – by being open about their opinions, they are being honest. The listener knows exactly what the other person thinks and so can trust them.

And this is the trap! To reach the same goal – trusting someone – Poles and Brits use very different communication styles. In the UK, we are dishonest about our opinions and hide disagreement. While Poles are honest with their opinions and express disagreement openly.

This difference can be frustrating for the Brits and confusing for the Poles. I’ve worked with many British managers who led teams of Poles and were frustrated that their team members would openly disagree. Similarly, I’ve met so many Poles who were fooled into thinking that a British person agrees when actually they disagree.

  • Two Poles, three opinions.
  • Two Brits, one opinion.
  • Two cultures, two ways of building trust!

Red for Go

Driving a car isn’t just a mechanical operation. It’s a cultural clash…especially when there are foreigners on the road.

When I started to drive in Poland, I had to relearn basic things…like what the colours in traffic lights mean.

In the UK, green means ‘go’, amber means ‘slow down and prepare to stop’ and red means ‘stop’.

In Poland, green means ‘go’, amber means ‘accelerate because the light will soon turn red’ and red means ‘only 2 more cars can pass, but the third has to stop’.

When I was driving in Poland and I drove through a junction and the light was just turning from amber to red, I would think to myself well, I was definitely the last car to make it across the junction. Then I would look in the mirror and there would be two more cars behind me.

There’s a joke about two men driving in the UK. The Pole is driving, while the Brit is sitting in the passenger seat. They come to a set of traffic lights and the lights turn from amber to red, but the Pole drives straight through them.

„What are you doing?’ asks the Brit. ‘That was a red light!’

‘It’s okay,” replies the Pole. „In Poland we always drive like this.’

After five minutes, they approach another set of traffic lights as they turn from amber to red. Again the Pole drives straight through.

‘That was another red light!’ says the Brit.

‘Don’t worry,’ replies the Pole. ‘This is how we drive in Poland’.

Not long afterwards, they come to some more traffic lights. This time the lights are green, but the Pole slows down the car and stops.

‘It’s green, you can go,’ says the Brit.

‘Are you kidding?’ says the Pole. ‘This is a Polish neighbourhood. I’m worried there might be a Pole coming the other way.’

How Many Cups of Tea?

How many cups of tea does it take a British person to change a light bulb?

Three.

  1. One beforehand because they don’t want to rush the job
  2. One in the middle as a break
  3. And one afterwards… with a biscuit …as a reward for a job well done.

How many cups of tea does it take a Pole to change a light bulb?

In my experience of working with Poles*, they’re hard-working, problem-oriented and like to get on with the task immediately. Poles will solve the problem first and then, and only then, will they make a cup of tea, sit down and complain about the light bulb breaking again.

Brits have a more laid-back attitude towards problem-solving and can postpone the solution until the kettle has boiled.

cup of tea

I used to work in a corporation in which teams of Poles and Brits worked together to deliver services. Generally speaking, the Brits had more experience, so the Poles relied on their help to solve certain issues. The Poles wanted help straight away and would ask the Brits for help via an online messenger. The Poles got frustrated if the Brits didn’t reply immediately and share the information that was required to solve the problem. And if the Brits went for a cup of tea…

In my experience, Poles are more energized by solving problems than by achieving goals. If your pulse is racing and adrenaline flowing because of some issue you’re facing, then the last thing you want is a cup of green tea. In the UK it’s the other way around. British people tend to see the problem as a minor inconvenience on the way to achieving a goal and so don’t feel the urgency to tackle the problem immediately.

When it comes to filling the kettle, timing is everything!

*Just bear in mind that I’m talking about young Poles in a multi-national corporation. This doesn’t refer to the guys who are renovating your apartment!