The Farmyard MBA

If you want to do business in Poland, then you’ll need to brush up on your Polish. But you can forget all that language you picked up during your Harvard MBA. If you want a successful career in Poland, then it’s more important to learn the vocabulary of a farm. The Polish language is full of farming metaphors, and Poles often see their workplace the same way a farmer sees his barn. Pick up this key agricultural vocabulary on the Farmyard MBA, and you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank. Ignore it and the only one laughing will be a horse (koń by się uśmiał) at your poor decision-making.   horse

Take for instance the Polish word: gospodarka. As well as referring to the economic output of the country, it also means ‘farm’. This can be confusing. When you see some figures on wzrost gospodarczy, you may wonder whether it refers to the growth of the Polish economy or the birth of a new calf. Likewise, whereas many English idioms, such as ‘taking coal to Newcastle’ come from a post-industrial world, many Polish idioms come from earlier, agrarian times. Instead of ‘taking coal to Katowice’, the equivalent expression in Polish is nosić drzewo do lasu (take wood to the forest).

So what issues might a foreign business person face when coming to work in Poland? How can they switch their mindset to talk and think like a farmer? How can they communicate so that no Pole, in reply to their strange opinions, will ask czyś ty z byka spadł?!? (did you fall off a bull?).

Communication

The first barrier you’ll encounter when working in Poland concerns communication. As well as language difficulties, you’ll also be facing a different working culture. Indeed, there will be occasions, perhaps during meetings or presentations, when you’ll have no idea what’s going on. At such times, Poles will look upon you as a farmyard animal. Either they’ll compare interactions with you to a conversation between a goose and piglets: rozmawiać jak gęś z prosięciem, or, seeing you stare with open mouth, they’ll view you as a young calf who’s been transfixed by a painted gate: patrzeć jak cielę w malowane wrota.

goose

How to handle such communication barriers? Well, it’s actually best to embrace the role of a farmyard animal, and ask your co-workers to talk to you as if they were chatting to a cow. Just say ‘talk to me like a farmer explaining something to a cow in a ditch’ and they will immediately recall the idiom tłumaczyć jak chłop krowie na rowie (explain something simply) and switch to a more straightforward communication style.

Simply put, when it comes to effective intercultural-communication, be the cow!

chłop

Office Politics

The farmyard can be a hierarchical place where the geese, oxen and hens battle it out to be the top dog. It can get to a point at which even the egg thinks it’s smarter than the hen (jajko mądrzejsze od kury). Your company’s headquarters may just as brutal, packed full of office politics and power struggles.

When working with Polish managers, you’ll need to bear in mind that Poles use farming metaphors to describe various management styles. One common style is to rządzić się jak szara gęś (lit. to rule like a grey goose) which means to abuse one’s position of authority. If any managers are strutting round the office like a dominant goose in the farmyard while their subordinates siedzą jak mysz pod miotłą (lit. sit like mice under a broom), then you may need to bring this up during the annual 360º performance review (as long as the mice are willing to share some feedback!).

Another characteristic of poor managers is when they are too tough on junior members of staff. You may need to remind such managers that they were also young and naive at one time. The Polish proverb zapomniał wół, jak cielęciem był (the ox forgot that he was once a calf) will help to get this point across.

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As well as the geese and the eggs around your office, you’d be wise to watch out for any employees who behave like goats. If you’re in a tight spot, don’t reach out to them for help because they’ll only take advantage of your weakness. As all Poles know, na pochyłe drzewo wszystkie kozy skaczą (lit. all goats jump on a fallen tree), so choose your allies carefully and don’t fall victim to such workplace bullying.

Negotiation

When negotiating with business partners and clients in Poland, you also need to think like a farmer. While your MBA taught you not to overpromise and underdeliver, the equivalent concept in Polish is not to offer pears on a willow tree (gruszki na wierzbie). Basically, a negotiation will be fruitful (owocne) provided you don’t bring up the subject of fruit at all.

After years of research, the mathematician John Nash won a Nobel Prize for his work on Game Theory, and helped business people come to the conclusion that the best outcome to a negotiation is win-win. Poles have known this for centuries. So don’t try to school your negotiating partners. They know full well that wilk syty i owca cała (wolf full, sheep whole) is the best outcome for all parties. So openly announce your intentions by saying ‘I’ll feed your wolf as long as you don’t touch my sheep’ and any negotiations with Poles will proceed to a positive outcome for all concerned.

Of course, there’s always a danger that a business partner might play some dirty tricks, so it’s always useful to hire a good legal team. Choose a lawyer carefully – you want an old dog who knows all the tricks. Whenever a rival tries to outfox you, it will be like a scythe smacking a stone (trafiła kosa na kamień) as he or she comes to blows with an equally strong opponent.

Work closely with the lawyer to prepare strategies for various scenarios in which another business person may try to deceive you. If you have been turned into a horse (zrobiony w konia), what will be your legal response? Likewise, if you are led up the garden path and thrown into the raspberry bushes (zostałeś wpuszczony w maliny), what will be your exit strategy?

Time Management/ Productivity

Poor planning and sloppy time management can lead to unproductive work. So which working habits in Poland might have a negative impact on productivity?

The two questions you need to ask are ‘where am I plowing?’ and ‘am I plowing at the right time?’ All Poles know that it’s hard work to plow fallow land (orka na ugorze), especially when your time management skills are poor, and you end up working from the fence to lunch (pracujesz od płotu do obiadu). Use a time management tool, like a to-do list or prioritization, to schedule the right place and time to plow.

Of course, it’s important to set goals effectively, but instead of the SMART model, Poles are guided by the do’s and don’ts of farming. Rule number one is to avoid setting goals that are too high. If an eager colleague is aiming too high, then tell them nie porywaj się z motyką na słońce (lit. not to aim for the sun with a hoe) and they’ll refocus on more realistic targets.

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That said, while long-term goals are useful, sometimes you need to focus on the here and now. If, over a cup of coffee, a Polish colleague hints that you’re a turkey, then don’t take this as an insult. He or she is merely referring to the proverb myślał indyk o niedzieli a w sobotę łeb mu ścięli (lit. the turkey thought of Sunday but on Saturday they cut his head off). Basically, they’re suggesting that you should focus on more immediate dangers rather than long-term plans.

Finally, modern corporations use ‘recognition schemes’ to identify hard-workers. These are also common in Poland, however, you may need to adapt to local culture when it comes to the name of program. You see, to the Polish way of thinking, to work hard is harować jak wół (lit. to work like an ox). So if your boss asks you to come up with a new name for the ’employee of the month’ scheme, then play cleverly with the word ‘rock star’ and suggest naming the scheme ‘ox-stars’.

Team-building / Building Relations

Modern teams just don’t work effectively without an annual team-building trip. However, when working in Poland, you’ll need to get used to a new set of team-building activities. Instead of paintball or abseiling, Poles build strong relationships by engaging in more agrarian tasks. Don’t be surprised, for instance, if you’re asked to eat a barrelful of salt with your co-workers. As the Polish proverb, zjeść z kimś beczkę soli testifies, once you’ve all been through this ordeal, then you’ll have a much stronger bond (and, unfortunately, much higher blood pressure).

How will you know when you have fully gained the trust of a co-worker or business partner in Poland? Well, there are some clear signals, but they are easy to misunderstand. One thing you might hear is that you are a równy chłop, and you might take this to mean that you’re a drunken peasant who’s flat on his back in a ditch. Similarly, once you have built a strong relationship with a Pole, then they might suggest a shared project, namely, stealing a farm animal together. If a business partner says the following z tobą można konie kraść (lit. with you, one can steal a horse), you might fear that he or she is suggesting that you kidnap a prize stallion in the middle of the night. Don’t panic. Both of these are just Farmspeak, and are Polish ways of saying ‘you’re a nice guy’!

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How important is this farmyard wisdom? Will your career grow and prosper in Poland if you don’t think like a farmer? Perhaps. You may get lucky and find yourself in the right place at the right time. As the Polish proverb says, trafiło się jak ślepej kurze ziarno (even a blind hen finds grain).

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But why risk your future on stumbling across a few grains of corn? Why not aim higher? Thanks to our unique academic program based on folk know-how and real farming case studies, your career will flourish like a well-run farm.

Złap byka za rogi (grab the bull by the horns) and sign up for the Farmyard MBA today!

Chasing Rainbows

What colour is the Polish language?

It seems like a bizarre question, right? But actually many people have subjective experiences in which their senses overlap. It’s called synesthesia and often involves perceiving numbers, words or sounds as colours. My wife, for instance, colours the days of the week – Tuesday is dark grey, Thursday is green and Sunday is yellow.

So if the Polish language has a colour, what is it?

Blue?

There’s a Polish idiom myśleć o niebieskich migdałach (literally, to think of blue almonds) which means ‘to daydream’. Why blue almonds? It’s actually a good choice because blue food only exists in your imagination. Blueberries are purple, blue cheese is only blue because it’s turned bad, and as for smurf-flavoured ice cream, well that comes straight from a dye factory. So thinking of a blue-coloured food is a perfect metaphor for daydreaming.

And thinking of blue almonds is also a good metaphor for a foreigner trying to master Polish. Sometimes I daydream about being able to speak the language fluently, reeling off perfectly-formed sentences like a native-speaker, understanding all of its grammatical complexities, and being able to spice up my utterances with idioms, street slang or regional dialect. Yet, deep down I know this is just chasing rainbows. At the end of the day, the Polish language is just a huge blue almond and it’s a hard nut to crack.

Gold?

Perhaps Polish is a golden language? Złoty in Polish is used in expressions like złoty interes (lucrative deal) and obiecywać złote góry (promise wonders). So perhaps the real question should be, does learning Polish offer you the chance to get rich? Not really. While many people learn English for economic reasons, I don’t think learning Polish is a złoty interes. So, no Polish isn’t a golden language.

Grey?

If you asked a British person (older than 30) to say which colour best describes Poland, they would probably answer: grey. In Cold War films and books, communist countries were portrayed as grey and bleak, and this image has stuck. So when such people happen to visit Poland, especially in the summer, they’re surprised to discover so much colour.

In keeping with its dull shade, the colour grey in the Polish language is used to describe a shady place or person: szara strefa (grey area) is place of uncertainty, while robić kogoś na szaro (lit. turn someone grey) means to swindle someone, and a szara eminencja (grey eminence) is a mysterious figure in the background who pulls the strings.

So is Polish grey? Well, it’s definitely a szara strefa, where the rules are as murky as a Polish winter, and I frequently feel swindled when I try to learn ten new words, but only remember two. And when I try to pronounce certain Polish words, I do feel as if there is a szara eminencja behind me, pulling my tongue in the wrong direction!

White & Red?

Colours were one of the first group of words I tried to learn in Polish, and I distinctly remember having a real moment of language shock when I first saw the Polish word for the red. I was expecting a word beginning with the letter ‘r’ just like words for red in other European languages – rouge, rot, rosso, rojo… in Polish it will probably be ‘rusz’ or ‘rzot’, I thought. But no, it’s czerwony, and it was then that I realised that learning a Slavic language was going to be tougher than I thought.

Since the national flag of Poland is white and red, you could easily assume these two colours would be very prevalent in the Polish language too.

In English the colour white is associated with purity and innocence. A white lie is told for a good reason, and if you’re whiter than white, then a white knight might come to rescue you. Conversely in Polish, the colour white seems to be associated with madness. While białe szaleństwo (white craziness) only refers to winter sports, the expression dostać białej gorączki (lit. get a white fever) means to go into a furious rage, something that in English, we express as red: to see red mist.

But the madness doesn’t end there. In English, when someone drinks do białego rana (until dawn) and has hallucinations when sobering up, they see pink elephants. I was amused to discover that the equivalent in Polish is widzieć białe myszki (see white mice). Now, white mice aren’t that exotic – you’re much more likely to see a white mouse than a pink elephant. And this made me wonder whether the hallucinations of Polish drunks aren’t as psychedelic as those in the English speaking world. Perhaps it’s a result of the purity of the vodka?

So there are certainly plenty of white idioms in Polish. What about red?

Curiously, there’s hardly any red idioms in the Polish language at all. Indeed, any that I came across seemed to be translations of foreign idioms (e.g. dostać czerwoną kart, czerwone światło) rather than original Polish ones. Why, despite Poland having a rather bloody history, does the Polish language ignore the colour red?

An armchair psychologist might suspect there’s something going on here. Why does the Polish language focus on white half of the flag? Why are there no red idioms? And why, when red is suppressed, do most of white idioms suggest craziness?

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Green?

Then, perhaps Polish is a green language? The colour green is associated with youth and inexperience as the expression zielony jak szczypiorek na wiosnę (as green as chives in spring) poetically describes. Yet, to me, Polish feels an old language, more like a gnarly old hedge that’s full of thorns and practically impenetrable.

However, I did experience some greenness early on in the process of learning Polish. After getting bored of repeating nie wiem so often, I switched to the response nie mam zielonego pojęcia (lit. I don’t have a green concept/idea) when asked difficult questions. Even though I didn’t know the answer to the question, by expressing this fact idiomatically, it felt like I was making progress.

And why is it that a lack of green ideas signifies not knowing? I’ve often wondered whether Poles, when searching for information, go through a quick checklist in their heads. Red ideas? Check. Blue ideas? Yes, lots of those. Orange ideas? Yep. Green ideas?… green ideas? I’ve got no green ideas!… I don’t know anything about this!

So what can I conclude?

I know three languages – English, German and Polish. For me, English is bluish-grey, German is green, what about Polish?

I’m pretty sure it’s not red or gold, but it could be grey, white or blue.

But, at the end of the day, all I can really say is nie mam czerwonego pojęcia, nie mam niebieskiego, żółtego ani pomarańczowego pojęcia. I na pewno nie mam pojęcia zielonego!

Like a Dog

People love dogs, but languages don’t. The English language treats dogs poorly with most dog idioms having negative meanings. A dog’s life is an unhappy one, you work like a dog and then die like a dog…and it’s not a happy ending.

On moving to Poland, I noticed that Poles were dog lovers, so I held out a hope that Polish dogs would get a better deal linguistically than they do in English. Yet before I even got to metaphors and idioms, the first challenge was learning the Polish word for dog.

The base form is easy – it just looks like the English word ‘pies’ as in apple pies. The challenge arises when the word is used in different cases:

pies, psów, psa, psem, psie, psi, psiego, psy, psu, piesek, pieskie…

I know that dogs come in many shapes and sizes, but does the Polish language need to reflect this? It isn’t instantly obvious to a foreign learner that psa, psem or psów are forms of the word for dog. Frankly, I see as much similarity between a Chihuahua and a Labrador than between pies and psa!

When I first learned the word for dog, I just assumed that the plural of pies was piesi (pedestrians). So, when I noticed a triangular road sign with an exclamation mark, warning drivers about piesi, I assumed it was an instruction to watch out for small dogs!

The animal may be cute, but the Polish word pies, and all its forms, is a dog to learn!

Fortunately, many dog idioms in Polish are less challenging because they are similar to those in English – pieskie życie (a dog’s life), zszedł na psy (going to the dogs) and traktować jak psa (treat like a dog) – but there are many more that are unique to Polish.

So is the Polish language kinder to dogs than English? Well, one way to verify this is to go through a checklist of needs, such as Maslow’s hierarchy, and ask if each of them are met. So let’s consider a typical Polish dog, perhaps called Burek, and check whether his needs are met according to Maslow’s hierarchy.

Physiological

Starting at the base of the pyramid, one can ask whether Burek’s basic needs (food, sleep etc) are cared for. As regards sleep, it seems not. Psia wachta (dog’s watch) is the worst watch in the middle of the night. While the rest of us sleep soundly, Burek is awake, keeping an eye out for intruders and thieves. And what reward does Burek get for keeping us safe? Certainly not kiełbasa as the idiom nie dla psa kiełbasa (sausage is not for a dog) clarifies. If he is fed at all, it’s low quality and given grudgingly.

Safety

Is Burek’s personal safety looked after? No, he’s not even given a roof over his head. The expression pogoda pod psem suggests that he has to sleep outdoors at the mercy of the weather.

The first time I heard the expression pogoda pod psem (literally, weather under a dog) I did wonder whether it meant good weather. I haven’t spent much time under a dog, but I imagine you’re sheltered and warm down there. Maybe it means hot, steamy summer weather? But no, as it turns out, it just means rotten weather. I should have known that if a dog’s involved, it wouldn’t be good news.

So it seems that Burek not only stays up all night, but does so in the cold, wind and rain.

Belonging

The next level of the pyramid is belonging. Surely, Burek is a loved and valued member of the family who will be remembered long after he has passed on? Well, no… the Polish language doesn’t pass this test either. The idiom zdechnąć jak pies pod płotem (literally, die like a dog under a fence) is used when someone passes on but isn’t mourned by any one. So it seems that poor Burek won’t be remembered for long…or at all.

Esteem

Is Burek respected as an individual? No, it seems not. The idiom nie jednemu psu Burek (there’s more than one dog called Spot) reminds us that Burek is just another dog. If you shouted his name in the park, half a dozen dogs would run over. If the wrong one followed you home, who cares!

So no, one can’t say that Burek’s owners help to build his self-esteem, he’s just another dog.

Self-actualization

Finally, we come to the apex of Maslow’s pyramid, the highest and most fulfilling need. Does Burek have opportunities for development? Can he grow personally and realise his full potential as a dog?

Nope.

Anything poor Burek achieves will be psu na budę (useless).

So as this quick run through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows, Burek isn’t any better off in the Polish language as Spot is in English. In fact, he’d be better off with Pavlov than Maslow… at least, he’d get fed regularly.

If languages truly reflected people’s affection for dogs, you’d think there would be a lot more positive idioms and expressions. After all, a dog is a man’s best friend, and as they say in Polish wierny jak pies (faithful as a dog). And how do the English and Polish languages treat them in return?

Like dogs!

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Given all the bad PR that surround dogs, isn’t it time they got organized and started demanding better treatment… at least linguistically? Dogs need to break free of their leashes, assert their rights and campaign for better idioms. If they were to raise awareness of their situation, lobby the makers of dictionaries and march through our cities’ streets, then perhaps one day, in the not too distant future, we’ll all aspire to live a dog’s life!

Financial Insecurity

In Polish there’s an expression skąpy jak Szkot (mean as a Scot). Being Scottish myself, I sometimes get irked by the stereotype that Scots are mean. It’s not that I’m offended, it’s just that I need to be on guard, monitoring my behaviour, to make sure that I’m not acting in a way that might reinforce the stereotype. So when learning Polish, especially language connected to money and financial transactions, in the back of my mind there was a voice saying ‘don’t pay too much attention, you don’t want people to think you’re obsessed with money.’

The first thing I learned about Polish money was the name of the currency, which most foreigners call zloties. To Anglo-saxon ears, zlot rhymes with slot and makes zloties sound like a bunch of tokens that you use to play slot machines in Las Vegas. Once I got used to the Polish name, I learned that złoty means golden, a word which creates a much better image for the currency than slot machine tokens.

One of the first financial lessons that I got in Poland came when I went grocery shopping. You see, there is one group of Poles who really know how to manage money carefully, and who fight tirelessly to teach others good financial habits too. I’m referring to Polish shop assistants, who are so focused with managing the change in the till, that they hound you to give them the right change. Any foreigner quickly learns expressions connected to giving the right change – nie ma Pan drobnych? Może końcówka? – because making a purchase depends on you having small coins and notes.

Polish shop assistants also give me numerous opportunities to dispel the myth that Scots are mean. Often, instead of giving you all the change, the shop assistant simply announces będę winna grosik (I owe you a penny) and doesn’t give you the full amount of change. Not being a skąpy Scot, I always agree immediately and don’t even think about the countless zloties I must have lost in this way over the years… nor the interest on the unpaid debt!

On the subject of debt, I did find it odd that the Polish word for ‘owe’ is the same as the word for ‘guilty’: winny. Does this mean that if you borrow money from a person, then you are guilty of some crime in their eyes? I also wonder whether this makes Poles more reluctant to take out loans?

The one major challenge when learning words connected money is that there’s so much slang. I quickly learned words like kasa and zeta, but slang words for quantities were more difficult. For instance, the first time I heard pięć dych was at a market when I was trying to buy a DVD, and I was disappointed when I discovered that it means five times ten and not five plus ten. Likewise, when I heard stówka (little hundred) for the first time, I did hold out a hope that it meant less than one hundred… otherwise why else would it be a diminutive?

To my ears, Polish slang words for money make it sound cute and innocent. At first when I heard any word ending in -ówka, it reminded me of the English word hoof. So złotówka (one złoty coin) sounded like a golden horse shoe, while stówka (hundred) sounded like a stone that is trapped in a pony’s hoof. Likewise, the first time I heard tysiak (thousand) it reminded me of prosiak (piglet) and I thought it was a cute forest mammal. At least bańka (million) sounded more serious and I assumed contained some good advice – if you come into a million, go straight to the bank. Yet, I later discovered that bańka means milk churn, which is the last place you ought to keep a million zloties!

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Of course, not wanting to look like a mean Scot, I can’t say that I don’t have any money in case people think it’s an excuse not to contribute. In English, we say, I’m broke (as if having money fixes you), while in Polish, I was surprised to learn that you say jestem spłukany (I’m rinsed). It sounds like you left your cash in the pocket of your jeans when you put them in the washing machine. And actually, this would work pretty well as an excuse for not paying. Sorry, can you pay for dinner, all my cash was rinsed at 60 degrees?

Another money topic I tend to avoid concerns saving money. In English we have an idiom ‘to save money for a rainy day’. It suggests that you should save money now so that you can cheer yourself up by spending it on a rainy day. I prefer the Polish version: trzymać coś na czarną godzinę (literally, keep something for a black hour). Cheering yourself up on a rainy day sounds trivial in comparison. Whatever nightmarish thing appears at this black hour, I certainly want to have some cash saved up… perhaps I can bribe it to go away!

One final expression, and one that I find particularly alarming, is the Polish proverb stating that pięniądze leżą na ulicy (money is lying on the street). You see, there’s an old joke that asks ‘how do you kill a Scotsman?’ The answer is to throw ten pence in front of a bus.

So if it’s true that money is lying on the ground in Poland, I just hope it isn’t lying on streets that the buses drive down!

The Fish Audit

If the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) were to take a look at the Polish language to check how animals are treated, then what would they learn about how Poles treat fish?

Do the fish have suitable living conditions?

The Polish language recognizes that the best place for a fish is in water: jak ryba w wodzie means to be in the best environment possible, while jak ryba bez wody means to be in a difficult situation. So the WWF would conclude that Poles know the best and worst place for a fish.

But of course, it’s the quantity and quality of water that matters. Take for instance the Polish idiom jak śledzie w beczce, which means to be packed into a tiny space…like sardines! This doesn’t suggest that śledź (herring) enjoy good living conditions. When such a popular Polish fish is treated in this way, this doesn’t look good for the rest.

Then there’s na bezrybiu i rak ryba (in a no-fish environment, a crayfish is a fish) which means something along the lines of beggars can’t be choosers. It’s a short expression, but when I first saw it, I couldn’t work out its meaning. The problem word was bezrybie because I couldn’t conceive of a no-fish environment, or more precisely, I couldn’t conceive that a language would have a word for this. If English tried to come up with one word to translate bezrybie, then the best I can think of is fishlessness:

Under fishlessness, a crayfish is a fish

Sounds poetic, but makes no sense.

Anyway, what worried me, and what might concern the WWF, is the fact that Polish has a word for the absence of fish. This suggests that such situation arises in Poland. If fishlessness exists as a concept, then it doesn’t bode well for the fish!

Do fish enjoy full rights as citizens?

The idiom gruba ryba suggests that some fish are doing well. But like the English equivalent, ‘to be a big fish in a small pond’, gruba ryba implies that the smaller fish aren’t so well off. Indeed, they’re probably harassed and exploited by the fatter, meaner fish, or even by rekiny biznesu!

When I first came across the expression: dzieci i ryby głosu nie mają, I assumed that ‘głos‘ referred to the right to vote. Kids and fish don’t get a vote – whether in family decisions nor in elections – which means that Polish fish don’t enjoy the full rights as citizens. It’s just as well that they don’t pay taxes otherwise we might face a revolt!

I later learned that this proverb doesn’t refer to voting at all. It means that children and fish don’t have a voice, i.e. parents say this to teach the kids to stay quiet. As we say in English, a child should be seen and not heard.

Polish fish are held up as examples of obedience and passivity. So the WWF might conclude that if fish want to win the right to vote, they’re going to have to speak up!

Are the fish in good health?

In English, to describe someone who drinks a lot of alcohol, we say that he or she drinks like a fish. This is a bit hard on fish who, if they drink at all, only drink water. As far as I’m aware, Polish fish don’t have a drink problem. Indeed, it seems that they are particularly healthy as Poles say zdrów jak ryba (as healthy as a fish) to describe someone who is in very good health.

So the WWF would give top marks here…but maybe they should take a second look?

Poles also say ryba psuje się od głowy (fish rot from the head down), to describe a situation in which an organization decays from its leadership down. Why did the Polish language choose fish for this particular idiom? Is rotting fish a common sight?

Wherever this comes from, it doesn’t sound like fish have good leadership. Not only are they poor communicators, but they’re a rotten bunch too. With this quality of leadership, I can’t see fish getting the right to vote any time soon.

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Carp: A Case Study

If WWF really want to run a case study on fish, then they should attend Christmas in Poland.

Like most foreigners, I was intrigued to learn what Poles eat for Christmas dinner. I wasn’t surprised that Poles eat fish, it’s just that I expected it to be a more upmarket fish like salmon or trout. But carp?

You see, I was once in Łazienki Park in Warsaw where there is a large pond full of carp. Leaning over the balustrade of a bridge, I could see the large dark masses of the carp as they swam back and forth. Beneath me I noticed a cigarette butt floating on the water. All of a sudden, a huge carp emerged from the brown water with its mouth open and swallowed it.

Do Polish fish smoke? Well, I’ve never looked inside a wędzarnia (smokehouse), so I don’t know whether the salmon are smoked or smoking. But in the case of carp, it does seems they enjoy a wee puff now and then!

Of course, the next big surprise for a foreigner is the first time they see a carp in the bathtub. While it’s a practical solution, and after my experiences in Łazienki Park, I was glad the carp was clean…but it is kind of weird.

Since there’s an idiom jak ryba w wodzie, I wonder whether there’s also an idiom jak karp w wannie? And if there were, what it would it mean? Would it mean that the carp is happy or would it mean something like a turkey at Christmas?

So I was uncertain how carp would taste or if I even wanted to try it. But in actual fact, the carp was quite tasty. The problem was with all those bones. Carp must be the boniest fish in the history of marine life. It takes five minutes just to remove the bones from a forkful of carp before it’s safe to eat.

I was intrigued to learn that the Polish language has a separate word for a fish’s bones. In English, all animals, birds and fish just have regular bones, but in Polish the bones in fish are called ość instead of kość.

I assume the reason for this is that when you have a carp bone stuck in the your throat, you can’t pronounce the letter k and can only croak ość, ość as you point frantically down your mouth.

So what would the WWF make of the fact that Polish has a separate word for fish bone? It does suggest that fish are often seen in Poland without their skin – not good news for the fish!

Audit Results

So what conclusion would the World Wildlife Fund come to after their fish audit of the Polish language?

Well, the fish seem to be in good health, though an anti-smoking campaign might be necessary. Living conditions are mostly fine, but there’s room for improvement with śledź and carp. And finally, the lack of good local leadership is worrying.

The WWF would probably conclude that more attention is required because, as we say in English, it does look a bit fishy.

 

Nation of Poets#3 – Work

Poles use a lot of rhyming expressions in everyday speech, and when I once told a friend that I like these expressions and he said:

‘What can I say? We’re a nation of poets!’

So to celebrate this nation of poets, here are some of my favourite rhyming expressions connected to work:

w naszym fachu nie ma strachu

This means ‘in our profession there is no fear‘, and when I first heard the expression I took it literally as a claim by the tradesman that he is so brave that he can tackle any job.

And to be honest, I would be rather unsettled by such a show of bravado. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t employ any tradesman who made this claim. It’s asking for trouble!

I imagined that the last words of many Polish builders before they met an untimely death were ‘w naszym fachu nie ma strachu‘…just before he fell off the dachu!

Later I learned that it’s not meant literally, and that it’s an expression tradesmen use to calm the client when they ask if a particular job is possible. A good rhyming translation would be ‘no fear, the plumber is here.’

work

elektryka prąd nie tyka

Another favourite of mine, and another expression to add the category ‘famous last words of Polish workers’ is elektryka prąd nie tyka (electricity doesn’t bother an electrician)

As far as I understand, this expression is complete wishful thinking as the electrician believes he is immune to electricity. I don’t know whether Polish electricians are made out of rubber, or whether their reactions are faster than a spark of electricity, but I still fear that they might be a little over confident.

zdrowie na budowie

Given the bravado of the previous two expressions, when I first saw zdrowie na budowie, I took literally. I assumed it was a slogan from communist times and was probably printed on posters in the style of social realism. By looking after the safety of himself and his colleagues, our heroic brick-layer builds apartments in record time.

I also figured that, in response to all the foolish bravery shown by Polish workmen, it was necessary to come up with a way to remind electricians that they are not immune to electricity. Fortunately, in Polish the word building site happens to rhyme with health and so, in an easy day’s work for the copywriter, zdrowie na budowie was created.

Yet my incorrect assumptions didn’t end there.

I also thought it was nice that construction firms care so much about the well-being of their employees that they came up with this slogan. Of course, it’s fashionable nowadays to erect digital signs saying 127 days since the last accident on this building site. What’s more, modern corporations have programs to support the well-being of their staff, but it seems that Polish building sites were ahead of this trend. I wondered whether it extended beyond health to other more fashionable concerns like wellness na budowie or mindfulness na koparce?

Then one day I learned that this slogan isn’t about workplace safety…nor mindfulness on a fork-lift truck, but it’s actually a toast and that the full version should read na zdrowie na budowie.

So the expression does refer to health on the building sites, just not in the way I assumed. ‘To your health on the building site‘ is the actual translation.

Oh!

What else is there to say when it turns out that your assumptions were completely wrong and that the world is actually a lot more cynical than you that you imagined?

gdzie kucharek sześc, tam nie ma co jeść

In the spirit of ignoring workplace safety, this last expression concerns a situation in which it wouldn’t be a problem if half the workforce had an work-related accident.

In English we have a very similar expression: too many cooks, spoil the broth, and both languages agree that the less cooks, the better.

I don’t know what it is about the cooking profession, but both languages agree that chefs just can’t work together in the kitchen. Perhaps they should learn from the builders and open a bottle of sherry before they start work?

I’m disappointed that we don’t have an English expression that rhymes. Using the Polish format with a number of chefs, it’s a piece of cake to come up with some useful rhymes:

  • when the cooks number eight, their soup you’ll hate
  • when the cooks number five, you won’t stay alive
  • when the cooks number four, just head for the door

I guess we’re just not a nation of poets…well our builders and cooks aren’t.

So if you’re working hard decorating your apartment or preparing food for Christmas in the kitchen, I hope your workplace is safe, free of fear and full of teamwork. If not, then there’s a simple solution…’na zdrowie‘.

The Weather Super Power

There’s a t-shirt you can buy that says on it: ‘I speak Polish. What’s your super power?

The thing is, I do think Poles have a super power but it’s not connected to speaking Polish.

It’s connected to the weather.

When learning words in a foreign language, it helps if you can hear, see or touch the thing that the word refers to. Alternatively, if the item of vocabulary refers to an experience, then it’s useful to remember a time when you’ve experienced the same thing.

But what if the expression describes something you’ve never sensed…never experienced…and is something you don’t even believe is possible for a human being to experience?

That’s what I felt the first time I heard a Pole say:

Spac mi się chce. Jest niskie ciśnienie dzisiaj.

(I’m sleepy. There’s low air pressure today)

Being British, I agreed politely even though I was thinking ‘what the hell are they talking about? How can the level of air pressure make them sleepy? Are they saying that there’s a huge column of air pressing down on their head and shoulders?’

I didn’t get it because I couldn’t feel it. I didn’t get it because I had never even experienced it.

The UK is a smallish, windy island, and the air tends to rush around a lot and definitely doesn’t stay in one place long enough to sit on anyone’s shoulders. The only air pressure British people feel is when walking into a strong wind.

But I kept hearing it. I met countless Poles who complained that the air pressure made them sleepy. So I came to the conclusion that Poles have some sixth sense that allows them to detect the level of air pressure? Some kind of super power.

Only it was a reverse super power because it takes energy away. A Polish super hero called Captain Ciśnienie wouldn’t have the energy to save anyone from mortal danger!

But that didn’t make any sense, so I just treated such statements as a mild case of hypochondria. I thought Poles who blamed air pressure for their sleepiness were exaggerating or making excuses to have another cup of coffee.

Yet… after living in Poland for 3-4 years…I started to feel it too. On days when the air pressure was low, I literally felt ‘under the weather’.

I’ve heard it’s the same in Munich with a wind that blows off the Alps called the föhn. When it blows, it gives the inhabitants a headache, but newcomers don’t feel it until they’ve been there a few years.

So it took me a few years to pick up this super power and get a feel for the word ciśnienie… only there are days when I wish I hadn’t.

Air pressure wasn’t the only type of weather that caused me confusion when learning Polish.

Like most foreigners, the first time I heard leje jak z cebra (literally, pouring like from a churn), I heard the word ‘zebra’ and assumed that this was the Polish equivalent of ‘it’s raining cats and dogs‘. I didn’t find this too strange because it doesn’t make much sense to imagine cats and dogs falling from the sky… so why not zebras too?

I did ask myself ‘why zebras?’ There aren’t any zebras in Poland except for the ones you use to cross the road.

Another Polish weather idiom is pogoda w kratkę (weather in plaid) which is used to describe changeable weather. When I first heard this, I automatically assumed that kratka was referring to Scottish tartan. The weather in Scotland is extremely changeable, so it made sense to talk about tartan weather.

It also answered the zebra question.

Zebras have black and white stripes, less colourful than tartan, but also arranged vertically. Since a zebra’s stripes are wider, it means the weather changes aren’t so frequent but are more severe…well, at least in my mind.

cats and dogs

If there’s one Polish season that has great branding, it’s autumn. I don’t know who invented the marketing campaign, but all Poles know how to promote this this season effectively. As soon as September arrives, I begin to hear the campaign slogan:

  • Złota Polska Jesień (golden polish autumn)

Indeed, I heard this expression so much that I started using an abbreviation – ZPJ – to save time.

Unlike most marketing campaigns, it is accurate. Poland does have lots of forests and the leaves turn golden in autumn, but it only tells one side of the story. While September and October are fully golden, the period from November to mid-December should be called Szara Polska Jesień (SPJ) because it’s cold, dull and smoggy for weeks on end.

They never mention SPJ in the holiday brochures!

If you want a good weather forecast, then don’t bother with the TV or internet. Poles look to nature when trying to predict the seasons.

I’ve heard Poles predict the depth of the upcoming winter or the raininess of the summer by making reference to one or more of the following:

  • the arrival or departure date of migrating birds
  • the number of babies in a stork’s nest
  • the thickness of the dog’s winter coat
  • whether mice decide to move indoors
  • the appearance of moles in the autumn

I’ve come to the conclusion that this skill of observation is another type of Polish super power.

In the UK, we seem to have lost this connection to nature, and we aren’t able to gather such useful data from animal and plant life about the upcoming seasons. The only exception are cows, but they only predict the next few hours and only one type of weather: rain. If the cows are sitting down in a field, then it will rain shortly. If they are standing up, your picnic can go ahead.

Come to think of it… perhaps cows have that super power thing… and it’s the air pressure that makes them feel sleepy and sit down?

Hello & Goodbye

The first thing you cover when learning a foreign language is how to say ‘hello’. Once you’ve mastered that, you can move on to ‘goodbye’. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Polish greeting cześć means both hello and goodbye. ‘How economical,’ I thought, ‘I’ve learned two words for the price of one. Learning Polish is going to be easy’.

I was also surprised to learn that cześć means honour or reverence. In this sense, Polish is more respectful than English. ‘Hi’ is derived from ‘hey you over there‘ and was just used to get the attention of the guy standing in the way of your tractor. ‘Hello’ is what you shout down the telephone to ask ‘is anyone there?

Despite being included in a beginner’s first language lesson, greetings and salutations are actually a rich language area, full of nuance and culture. You don’t just say hello, you also show respect, social status and define the closeness of the relationship.

While many Polish greetings have a similar form to English – dobranoc, dzień dobry, do widzenia – there are some expressions that are a little less straightforward to learn:

Pa

When I first came to Poland and spoke very little Polish, I used to give one-to-one English lessons to a manager in a oil company. During the lessons, the manager would receive a lot of phone calls from her employees, some of which she answered in my presence. She would finish each call by saying ‘pa’ and I used to think that it was her dad that was calling.

He certainly has a lot of questions,’ I thought, ‘to bother his daughter at work all the time!’

Szerokiej drogi

When I first heard the salutation szerokiej drogi, I didn’t really get it. I understood that it literally means ‘I wish you wide roads’, but was confused why Poles used the adjective wide. If I was to make a ranking of ideal road conditions, I’d put fast roads first, followed by safe in second position. Wide wouldn’t even make the top ten.

But then I heard an anecdote and the expression suddenly made perfect sense.

It concerned an American director who came to work in Poland to run a factory situated 45km from Warsaw. He lived in the city and so commuted to work everyday using a busy road that had one lane in each direction.

The first time he made the trip, he freaked out.

Why? Because it was one of those Polish roads with additional lanes on either side. If you want to overtake, then you drive in the centre of the road, and cars coming the other way move over into these additional lanes. Being American, he’d never seen this style of driving, and he spent the whole trip swerving to avoid cars that were coming directly towards him. As soon as he got to the factory, he went straight to the procurement department and asked them to order him a big Volvo…the safest model available. His employees in the factory taught him the expression szerokiej drogi and jokingly said it to him every time he left to go home.

So actually, the salutation is very literal. Wide roads mean safe roads because there’s room to avoid other traffic. What’s more, wide roads are fast roads because there’s or plenty of room for overtaking.

So I should apologise to those Poles that I doubted. Wide roads are better than fast or safe roads, and when they wished me szerokiej drogi, it was wisdom based on experience!

czitczat6

Witam

The use of witam in Polish has always puzzled me, and it’s actually one word of Polish that I can’t bring myself to use. For me, it just doesn’t make any sense. Okay, it’s useful when you are welcoming a guest to your apartment or a new employee to your place of work, but in other contexts, I find it strange.

And I’ve always been particularly confused by the use of witam or witajcie at the start of emails. What is the writer welcoming me to? The email?

In English this would sound automated, as if the computer were welcoming you:

Welcome to this email.

You will find its contents in the two paragraphs below.

If you are not completely satisfied with the contents of this email, please reply button on the top right of the screen.

We wish you a satisfactory stay in your inbox.

Kłaniam się

I had a landlord in Krakow who always used to use this expression when he came round to collect the rent money. He was medium-height and very skinny, usually dressed in black. As he was leaving, he would always say kłaniam się and he would bow slightly. It was as if he were a butler that was leaving his master for the night.

At first, I assumed it was a regional expression, and that I was hearing the word ‘goodbye’ in a Cracovian dialect. It wasn’t until later that I learned that kłaniam się actually means ‘I bow’.

I can’t help using kłaniam się sarcastically from time to time. Like when I was summoned to give a presentation to a board meeting – I delivered the presentation, answered some questions and left so they could move on to the next topic. So I picked up my laptop, bowed slightly and said kłaniam się as a I backed out of the door.

Cześć.

Pa.

I wish you a wide virtual highway.

Kłaniam się.

Welcome to the end of this post 😉

Far, Far Away

To a child, sitting in the backseat of a car, the most important question is ‘how much further is it?‘ You can’t blame them for asking – Polish fairy tales often start with za siedmioma górami, za siedmioma rzekami… (over seven mountains, over seven rivers…), which builds the expectation that most places are pretty far away.

From an early age, we need to know how near or far something is… it’s no wonder that a language develops a rich set of words to describe such things.

Near

In English, travel agents promote hotels in holiday resorts by saying they are only ‘a stone’s throw‘ from the beach. And this is something you can check. Just walk out of the hotel, pick up a medium-sized stone and try to throw it as far as the beach. Of course, your hotel will only be a stone’s throw away from the police station if you injure someone, but if no one is around, then you can actually verify the advertising.

The equivalent expression in Polish – rzut beretem – intrigues me. If you want to say that something is close by, then why say it’s only a beret’s throw away? I assume you would have to toss the beret as if it were a Frisbee, otherwise it wouldn’t go very far. But why a beret? I guess you can throw a beret further than a woolly hat, but why choose headgear in the first place?

I’ve never associated the beret with Poland. It’s more commonly associated with France. Maybe this idiom is anti-French? Do Poles like to tease the French by throwing away their headgear? Is that why Napoleon didn’t hang around in Poland very long – because Maria Walewska kept throwing his funny hat out of the palace window?

A better hat would be those worn in Zakopane – I’m sure you could throw a ‘kapelusz góralski‘ quite far off the top of Giewont.

For advertising purposes, the expression rzut beretem is perfect if you’re promoting a hotel in the south of France. Saying the beach is only a beret’s throw away fits the cultural context. But it wouldn’t make any sense in Morocco where you would need to throw a fez and your hotel would need to be right on the beach to have any chance of hitting it.

Far

When you learn a foreign language sometimes you get jealous. You come across a word, expression or idiom that is so cool, poetic or funny that you wish you had it in your own language too. That’s how I feel about the following expressions – I wish we had them in English!

Both of them describe a far away backwoods, and they’re so much more poetic than in the middle of nowhere, boondocks or hinterland. There’s a children’s book called ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and these two expressions seem to fit into that world.

Tam gdzie diabeł mówi dobranoc (out where the devil says goodnight) – this one is really creepy. I mean, if the devil was saying good morning or good afternoon, it would be scary, but the fact that he’s saying goodnight makes it especially dark… as if you wouldn’t want to visit that place because you don’t know whether you’d wake up the next day. I can just imagine the devil saying ‘night, night‘… and adding sarcastically… ‘don’t let the bed bugs bite‘.

devil3

At least the devil is polite enough to say goodnight… in person. You’d think a busy executive like the devil would delegate the job by sending some minor demon to wish you sweet dreams. But no, wherever this place is, it’s important enough that the devil gives it his personal attention.

Tam gdzie wrony zawracają (out where the crows turn back) – while the diabeł expression seems to increase the importance of the place, this expression makes it so unattractive that crows don’t even bother to fly there.

I love the implicit insult in this expression. Crows consume rubbish and carrion, but not even a crow would visit this place to scavenge. When I steal this expression, package it and export it to the UK, I’ll substitute seagulls for crows – they’re more numerous and even less fussy about what they eat… so the insult will sting even more!

But then again, by replacing crows with seagulls, the idiom would lose some of its darkness. After all, crows are associated with death, and if they turn back, what horrors must exist beyond that point?

So, in actual fact, I don’t need a fairy tale or holiday brochure to transport me to a far away place… that’s over seven hills… and over seven rivers.

When it includes the above expressions… all I need to is have a conversation in Polish!

The Week is Dead

After a long, hard Wednesday at work I went to the kitchen around 4pm.

‘How are things?’ Magda asked.

‘I need more coffee to get me through the rest of the day,’ I replied.

‘Me too… But środa minie, tydzień ginie,’ she said with a smile.

It was the first time I had ever heard that expression…and it made me laugh. What a wonderful little saying! Wednesday is passing, the week is dying.

But what I liked most about the phrase is that it expresses solidarity. We were both tired at work and couldn’t wait for Friday afternoon. Look on the bright side, we’re three fifths of the way there!

I once found the expression środa minie, tydzień ginie on a website offering ‘inspiring quotes’. That’s so Polish I thought. Saying ‘the week has been crap, but don’t worry it’s almost over’ isn’t exactly inspiring…it’s more like consolation. But actually, on that long, tiring Wednesday afternoon, it did give me a lift.

I do wonder why it’s Wednesday and not Thursday that is passing. I mean, after Wednesday there’s still two days to go until the weekend. After Thursday, you’re straight into Friday! Still… I can’t disagree with Piątek – weekendu początek.

Talking of Friday, I’ve observed some Poles picking up the American habit of wishing one another a ‘happy Friday’. Unable to wait for Friday afternoon when it’s normal to say ‘have a nice weekend’, some people turn Friday into a happy day too. Incidentally, I’ve never heard anyone wishing me a ‘happy Monday!’

The expression ‘have a nice day’ didn’t appear in the UK until the late 1980’s when McDonald’s opened their first outlets. Their staff were trained to wish customers a nice day at the end of the interaction, and it’s become a common expression ever since. I’ve heard that miłego dnia only appeared in the 90’s in Poland. Luckily for you, the Berlin Wall was holding it back throughout the eighties.

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of the expression ‘have a nice day’. The intention behind it is great, the problem is with its resolution. To quote the comedian George Carlin*: ‘Everybody wants me to have a nice day…That’s the trouble with have a nice day, it puts all the pressure on you. Now I’ve gotta go out and somehow manage to have a good time!

czit czat_jpg

So actually, although it’s less positive, Polish chit-chat is more realistic. Everyone can relate to środa minie, tydzień ginie. Nevertheless, Americans’ positive attitude is spreading fast. Will it conquer Poland? I’m not so sure.

I used to work for an American corporation and had a lot of meetings, calls and interactions with American colleagues. One of most important emotions in the US is excitement, and during a typical meeting, Americans would say how excited they are at least once. In the US it’s important to be positive and give the impression that you’re happy, energetic and engaged.

Poles have a hard time adapting to this – I know because I ran training for groups of Poles about the differences between Polish and US corporate culture, but they didn’t go very well:

Me: You should say you’re excited at least once during a conference call with your American colleagues.

Poles: What if we’re not excited?

Me: Doesn’t matter, I don’t think the Americans are either. They just put on a positive face.

Poles: Isn’t that false?

Me: They’re trying to share positive emotions and create a good atmosphere.

Poles: But it’s hard to get excited about a new time management tool. we just don’t care that much.

In the US, there’s pressure to be positive, wear a smiling face and wish everyone a nice day. I definitely don’t feel that kind of pressure in Poland.

So Happy Friday!

The week is dead.

Have a nice weekend 😉

 

*George Carlin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJZ6ixiVgCs