Keep Calm

Different cultures emphasise different emotions. Britons, for instance, think that calmness is the queen of emotions and that if only everyone would calm down, then the world would be a better place. All those ‘keep calm and…‘ memes (like ‘keep calm and drink tea‘) are part of our propaganda campaign to sell our favourite emotion to the world 😉

If a foreigner wants to appear British, then he or she needs to develop their ability to be detached and ironic while saying ‘we might have a slight issue here‘ as the house burns down.

So which emotions are peculiar in the Polish language? Which emotions does a Polish language learner need to understand not only linguistically, but also emotionally, in order to sound like a Pole?

In my experience, it isn’t positive emotions (like happiness, surprise or relief) that are tough to express in Polish, it’s the words used to describe negative emotions that give me sleepless nights.

The first Polish word used to describe an emotion that I came across was zły. The dictionary translated it as ‘bad’ but I just felt confused.

You see, there are such a variety of declensions of this little word: zła, źli, złe, złemu, złą, złego…some with a ‘z’, some with ‘ź’, some with ‘ł’, and others with ‘l’ – that I didn’t know whether it was one word or many different words. I’ve probably been corrected more often for grammatical errors connected with the formation of the word zły than any other word in Polish.

And then there is the meaning. At first I thought it was a direct equivalent of the English word ‘bad’ as in źle się czuję (I feel bad) and złe zachowanie (bad behaviour). So when I heard Poles say Jestem zły (lit. I am bad) I wondered if they were confessing something about their character and were going to tell me where the bodies were hidden. Of course, it turns out that zły means ‘angry’ too… and a lot more besides.

Type these three letters z-ł-y into an online dictionary and you get a mass of English translations. Angry, bad, evil, ill, malevolent, malicious, malign, miffed, miserable, nasty, peeved, poor, savage, adverse, annoyed, erroneous, evil-intentioned, evil-minded, fierce, incorrect, invalid, mad, pissed off, spare, upset, vicious, wrong, hot under the collar. That’s a lot of meaning packed into three letters! Does the word zły describe many different emotions or just one huge cocktail of badness?

All in all, for a Polish learner, zły is bad word… both in terms of meaning… and grammatically!

Another time I was confused about the word zły was when a Polish colleague wanted to warn me that our boss was in a bad mood and said uważaj, ona jest w złym humorze. I understood that it was a warning about about her sense of humour, and I feared being the victim of some malicious joke. But I was merely the victim of a false friend. ‘Humour’ in English used to mean ‘mood’ as well, but nowadays it just refers to jokes and comedy. So when a Pole says that are in a bad mood (w złym humorze), I like to think that they are just having a ‘bad comedy day’ and so I avoid making jokes they won’t appreciate.

When I first came to Poland I used to buy a sport newspaper called Przegd Sportowy. Not knowing much Polish, I didn’t read the articles, but simply checked the football results from European leagues. On one particular Monday, the headline on the cover read ‘Hańba!‘. In Scotland, football fans shout this word quite often when they see an opposition player using their hand to play the ball and want to appeal for a penalty. The word ‘handball’, when shouted by a Scottish crowd, sounds just like hańba. So innocently, I assumed the lead story was about a controversial penalty in a football match. Indeed, the picture below the headline showed some hooligans rampaging in a stadium. They must have been really upset by the referee’s decision, I thought.

Of course, it turned out that the story was about some hooligans destroying a stadium and the Polish word hańba means ‘disgrace’. I should have known because if there’s one emotion that is expressed frequently in Polish, it’s ‘shame’. In order to sound even slightly proficient in Polish, it’s necessary for a learner to master one key expression:

Ale wstyd!

Poles are so good at saying this. The slight shake of the head, the way the word ale lasts twice as long as the word wstyd, the sharp, downward intonation at the end. It’s cutting. Whenever the national football team lose an important match, a public institution isn’t functioning properly or a politician makes a silly gaff, I’ve learned to react like a Pole by expressing the emotion of shame and saying ale wstyd!

I have more trouble with the word żenada (embarrassment) though. It sounds too nice for such a powerful emotion. To my ears, it sounds likes a soft drink. Do you want lemoniada, oranżada or żenada? I just can’t connect it to a feeling of embarrassment.


If there’s one language mistake I’ve made that did cause me to feel żenada, it concerns the expression to describe being ‘in the huff’. For years, instead of hearing the correct version strzelić focha, I thought the Polish version was strzelić foka (to shoot a seal). ‘It’s rather brutal, I thought ‘that when a Pole is in the huff they go outside and shoot a seal‘. I did wonder whether there are many seals left in the Baltic or whether they’ve all been shot!

How was I supposed to know that the word was focha and not foka? The only Foch I knew was a French general in the First World War. And while he probably had good reason to be in a bad mood, I doubted that his temper was so infamous as to become part of the Polish language.

So when I informed a room full of Poles that someone had just shot a seal, understandably, they were a little confused. And when they figured out my mistake, I felt embarrassed… just a little żenada.

Of course, language learning can be a minefield. You’re going to trip up from time to time.

So even if I make an embarrassing language mistake in Polish, I revert to the British emotion of calmness:

Keep calm and take care of the seals!

Polish for Dummies

When a learner of Polish gets to the terms that Poles use to refer to other nationalities, the majority are pretty easy to learn. The Polish names for the French (Francuz), British (Brytyjczyk) or Russian (Rosjanin) are very similar to the terms these nationalities use themselves. However, there are three countries that get special treatment in the Polish language, three countries whose Polish names are strikingly different and that a learner has to make an effort to learn. I’ve always been curious why.

The first is Germany. In Polish, why is Germany called Niemcy? English borrowed Germania from Latin to make Germany, while the French use the term Allemange from the Germanic tribe Alemanni. But there was no tribe called the Niemenni, so what influenced the first Poles to call their western neighbours Niemcy?

One day I found the answer… and it’s hilarious!

I learned that it comes from the Polish word niemy meaning ‘dumb’ or ‘mute’. It made perfect sense. Niemcy comes from niemy. How else to refer to the group of people who don’t speak your language? When the first Poles encountered a tribe of barbarians on the other side of the Oder/Odra river, they probably tried to start a conversation. But these strangers didn’t understand a single word and their own language was completely incomprehensible. No wonder the first Poles christened them ‘the dummies’.

And grammatically the words for Germany and Germans are strange. Why is the Polish word for Germany (Niemcy) and Germans (Niemcy) the same? Is it because, rather than talking about the geographical country, Poles are simply referring to the inhabitants? You know, the bunch of dummies next door?

And then there’s the question why one German is Niemiec and Poles, when they are traveling to Hamburg or Frankfurt, say Jadę do Niemiec... as if they were going to visit one particular German? And when they come back, a Pole will then say Byłem w Niemczech. Niem-czech… are the Czechs dummies too?

All in all, the way that the Polish language refers to its western neighbour is rather odd.

The next country that is a special case is Italy. Most languages refer to this country as Italia, Italiano etc. Why do the Poles call the country Włochy and call Italians Włosi? I looked for a similar pattern to the Germans. Perhaps the name comes from a Polish adjective? The closest I could find was włochaty meaning ‘fluffy’. Are Italians known for their fluffiness? Do Poles refer to them as Fluffarians? Probably not, so it remains a mystery.

And the third country that gets special treatment are the Hungarians, who are not called Huns or Magyars but Węgrzy. A woman from Hungary is a Węgierka, which is also a type of plum. Is there a connection? Perhaps to Poles, Attila the Hun was only a fruit salesman? Whatever the reason, there seems to be a very special relationship between Poles and Hungarians – I even heard a Polish rhyme about it – Polak, Węgier, dwa bratanki, i do szabli, i do szklanki (lit. Pole, Hungarian, two brothers, with the sword, and with the glass). Basically, Poles and Hungarians are great friends who get drunk together after beating up the Dummies or the Fluffarians.


mr rude2

So the process of learning the terms for nationalities raises lots of questions for a Polish language learner. And it gets worse when it comes to idioms.

Take for instance, the Polish expression meaning ‘once in a blue moon’ which is raz na ruski rok (lit. once a Russian year). I use this expression completely blindly. I know what it means, but I don’t know what it implies? Why is it raz na ruski rok rather than raz na szwedzki rok? When I use it am I ignorantly perpetuating some negative stereotype against the Russians?

You see, it is hard to work out whether this idiom might be offensive. According to NASA, a blue moon occurs every 2.7 years. So how long is a Russian year according to Poles? 2.7 years, 5 years, 10 years? And what is implied if one suggests that a Russian year is a lot longer than a normal one? For all I know, raz na ruski rok could be grossly insulting.

Another one I’m worried about is czeski błąd. If I make a typo, is it okay to refer to it as a czeski błąd or should I stick to ąd drukarski? Why, in the Polish language, is a typo connected to the Czechs? Are they prone to making typos? Are they too lazy to double-check what they’ve written? Or is it that they type with one hand while holding a glass of strong Czech lager in the other?

And then there’s a Polish idiom that describes people from the British Isles: wyjść po angielsku (lit. leave in an English style) which means to leave a social gathering without saying goodbye. In the UK it is acceptable to discreetly sneak out of a party without making a fuss (most British habits and customs are designed to avoid making a fuss). But I wasn’t aware that this behaviour isn’t entirely normal until I came across this Polish idiom. Oh, I thought, Poles have a idiom for this! You mean it’s a bit weird to leave without saying goodbye?

The problem for me is that I’m Scottish, and we Scots can get offended if others call us English. So now I make a special effort to say goodbye to everyone when leaving a party in case anyone dares claim that I left po angielsku!

To be on the safe side, perhaps I should just avoid using Polish idioms that refer to other nationalities completely? Just in case I am reinforcing some negative stereotype.

But then again, maybe I shouldn’t be so sensitive.

Maybe I’m being too fussy? Maybe I should just use these Polish idioms freely and not worry if I’m perpetuating stereotypes nor insulting anyone?

I mean… linguistically … I don’t want to come across like a francuski piesek!


*francuski piesek, (lit. french dog), over-sensitive, fussy.

Don’t be the Early Bird

The first time I went sailing in Mazury, we hired a boat in Giżycko and set sail around ten a.m. As soon as we were out of the port, the captain handed me a beer.

Alcohol? This early? I don’t think I’ve ever drunk alcohol before midday‘ I muttered.

Welcome to Mazury‘, he replied.

It’s not just drinking habits that vary from culture to culture, attitudes to time vary as well. If you don’t fall into line with a foreign culture’s approach to time-keeping, then you end up doing the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place.

Of course, you could say that drinking beer on a boat in Mazury at 10am is doing the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place. Rather than falling into line with the habits of a foreign culture, I might have ended up falling into a Masurian lake… but you know what I mean.

So when a foreigner learns the Polish language, he or she also picks up some insight into Poles’ attitude towards time. How do Poles tell the time? Do they value punctuality? And are they good time managers?

Lesson #1: Telling the Time

Learning how to tell the time in Polish isn’t particularly difficult, but it’s more tricky than it should be. By using ordinal numbers and the 24-hour clock, the Polish language makes a foreigner work just a little bit harder to master this skill.

First of all, I was surprised to learn that Poles use ordinal numbers instead of cardinal ones to label hours. So if you want to say ‘it’s eight o’clock’, then you need to say jest ósma (literally, it’s the eighth hour). And when I hear this, I always think ‘the eighth hour since what?’ As a child I learned that the First World War ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Saying ‘it’s the eighth hour’ in Polish gives me a sense of doom as if I were saying ‘it’s the eighth hour… since some terrible tragedy occurred‘. To my ears, this gives Polish time a very weighty, backward-looking feel. It’s the eighth hour and we haven’t forgotten.

And there’s a lot of memorization involved. While a learner of English just needs to learn 12 cardinal numbers, learners of Polish need to learn 24 cardinal numbers and their 24 ordinals. This is because Poles use both the 12 and 24-hour clock to tell the time. If you want to meet at 8pm, a Pole might say o ósmej wieczorem (at the eighth hour in the evening) or o dwudziesej (at the twentieth hour). Why? I don’t know. I just know that it’s a pain in the neck to learn all those bloody ordinals.

By the time I had learned how to schedule appointments in Polish, I was too exhausted to actually go anywhere. I’d look at the clock, try and figure out what the time was, and conclude that it pora snu (bedtime).

Lesson#2: Punctuality

The first time I saw the Polish word for ‘hour’, I assumed that time must be important to Poles. To my ears, Godzina sounded like the name of a god, or at the very least, some huge, powerful creature, perhaps the offspring of Godzilla and Krishna. So do Poles treat time as a deity and worship punctuality?

Not always.

There’s seems to be a magical 15 minute grace period. On many occasions, while waiting for others to arrive, I’ve heard Poles talk about the kwadrans akademicki (academic quarter of an hour). As far as I understand it, professors are allowed to be 15 minutes late for lectures. If they are more than 15 minutes late, then the students get up and leave. Thanks to this, lectures don’t start late until 16 minutes past the scheduled start time. Anything up to 15 minutes is actually on time.

In some countries, punctuality is highly valued. It’s important to be on time because being punctual defines you as a well-organized person. In my experience, many Poles have a more pragmatic approach to being on time – it’s only important to be on time if it gains you some advantage. For instance, if there is limited seating at a concert venue and you want to make sure you have a good spot, then it’s worth being on time. If there’s nothing to be gained from being on time, then there’s no point being punctual just for the sake of it.

Lesson#3: Public Holidays

In Poland the names and timings of public holidays are complex, and a foreigner, if they are curious why they have a day off work, faces some challenges. Firstly, they need to learn some Polish history to appreciate the relevance of Święto Konstytucji 3 Maja and Narodowe święto Niepodległości. Secondly, they face the challenge of learning some very tough vocabulary connected to religious holidays – Trzech Króli, Boże Ciało, Wniebowzięcie Najświętszej Maryi Panny and Wszystkich Świętych. And thirdly, because many of these holidays fall on Tuesdays or Wednesdays or Thursdays, they need advanced time management skills to maximize the number of long weekends they can enjoy per year.

In the UK, by comparison, it’s far easier. Public holidays are always on a Monday and are known as ‘Bank Holidays’. You see, in the UK, money is our religion. If the bank is closed and you can’t manage your finances, then you might as well spent time with your family or visit the seaside. It’s simple. No history, no religion, all you need to know is that time is money… except on days when the banks are closed!

Time Mysteries


While I’ve picked up some insights into Polish time-keeping, there are still many things that I don’t understand:

  • Why do the Polish words for midday (południe) and midnight (północ) also mean ‘south’ and ‘north’? At first, I assumed it was because a clock and a compass look similar, but if that was the case, then południe should refer to six o’clock!
  • Do Poles have trouble remembering the words for past and future? Przeszłość (past) and przyszłość (future) look and sound so similar that I couldn’t remember which was which for years. When I learned the word złość (anger), it started to make sense. I’d been pretty angry about the difference between przes-złość and przys-złość for years!
  • How do PKP measure time? While waiting for a train, I’ve often heard an announcement that the train is late by X minutes. This is followed by a wonderful sentence czas opoznieny może ulegnac zmiany (the amount of lateness may change). Einstein taught us that time is relative. It seems to be especially relative to PKP. So you need to get your head around the fact that the train is late, but still might arrive earlier than the estimated delay, or later than the current delay. No matter how long the delay is, I usually hang around the platform. You still need to be on time for PKP’s lateness otherwise you’ll miss the train.
  • What does zaraz zaraz really mean? When a Pole says zaraz it means ‘soon’, but when they repeat the word and say zaraz zaraz, I don’t get the impression that it means ‘sooner’.
  • Last, but not least, there are the Polish equivalents of ‘early bird’ and ‘night owl’. When I first heard the expression ranny ptaszek, I assumed this meant ‘injured bird’. Ranny can be translated into English as both ‘morning’ and ‘injured’ and I assumed it meant the latter. So rather than getting the first worm, I wondered, do Poles think that an early bird is more likely to attacked by some predator? And as regards ‘night owl’, why is the Polish translation nocny marek? Who is this Marek guy? Has anybody stayed up late enough to meet him?

Gulliver’s Travels

Is Poland a big country or a small one? Sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t.

The first day I arrived in Poland, while traveling by taxi from the airport to the centre of Warsaw, there was one thing that really captured my attention in this new, alien country. It wasn’t the people nor the buildings, but some of the cars. They were so absurdly small that I couldn’t believe a human being could fit inside. ‘That’s a Maluch,’ explained the person who had picked me up at the airport. ‘It means ‘a little one’.

It turned out that my flat was ‘a little one’ as well.

The apartment was around 28 square metres and consisted of one room, half a kitchen and a tiny bathroom. There was one narrow sofa bed that was a sofa during the day and a bed at night, and also doubled up as a container for the bedding. Covering one entire wall of the living room was a line of cupboards, shelves and drawers, some functional, some ornamental, which was packed full of possessions left by the landlord. The washing machine wasn’t in the kitchen. Instead, despite being tiny, it took up half the space in the bathroom, and only had enough capacity for one set of clothes to be washed at a time. The TV screen was the size of a toaster and mostly showed ski jumping competitions, which were won by a small Polish guy called ‘Małysz‘.

Unsurprisingly, many of the first words I learned in Polish described small things – mały, wąski, krótki – or were the names of space-saving items of furniture and storage solutions – meblościanka (wall unit), wersalka (sofa bed), pawlacz (cubbyhole) and piwnica (basement). Indeed, one of the first verbs I learned was rozłożyć łozko (set up the bed) though I learned it in the context of nie mogę rozłożyć łóżka (I can’t set up the bed). There’s a knack to getting one half of a folding sofa bed to click into place so that it collapses into the bed position. I just couldn’t work out how to do it and spent the first few nights sleeping on the narrow sofa rather than the full bed. I was too embarrassed to ask for help in case people got the wrong idea. Can you come round to my place and show me how to set up the sofa bed? Sounds way too suggestive!


Like Gulliver on his arrival in Lilliput, I felt like a giant in a world designed for dwarfs. And I started to wonder whether communist architects had made some sort of miscalculation in their plans that caused them to assume that Poles were only 1.5m tall.

First impressions can be deceptive, but at first, Poland felt like a small country.

In the book Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver escapes from Lilliput, and ends up in a land of giants called Brobdingnag. Curiously, my first month in Poland seemed to retrace Gulliver’s journey when I spent a long weekend in Southern Poland.

I was immediately struck by the difference in scale. The houses had five stories, the fir trees were huge and the Tatra mountains looked like the Alps. In Zakopane I didn’t learn words for small, compact things, but for big, expansive ones: góra, góral, wielki. The hiking routes were długie (long) and the prices, like the mountains, were wysokie (high). The highlanders, the Górals, also seemed to have a big approach to life as well – large, outgoing people with loud, booming voices. They seem to have so much confidence, striding around in those fury sweaters and sheepskin trousers.

I went rafting on the Dunajec river and as we passed beneath the Pieniny Mountains, one of the passengers asked a Góral who was steering the boat what he did during the off-season when there were no tourists. Fortunately, a Polish friend was on hand to translate his reply.

Pointing at the three peaks above us, the Góral said in a melodic voice, ‘we rearrange the mountains to give the tourists a different view when they come back the following season.’

If Nietzsche went looking for his superman in Poland, I’d recommend he start in a karczma in Podhale!

Riding the train back to Warsaw from Zakopane, I leafed through a guidebook to Poland and was surprised to notice that the ‘land of giants’ was called Małopolska.

Isn’t it ironic that the region with all the big stuff is called ‘little Poland?‘ I asked a Polish friend.

‘No,’ she replied. ‘Because there’s a region called Wielkopolska too and there’s no mountains there.’

I started to wonder whether Poland was Jonathan Swift’s inspiration for Gulliver’s Travels. Perhaps he toured Europe in his youth and was struck by the contrast of big things and little things in Poland. Of course, when Swift was alive in the 17th century, Poland was bigger than it is now… and in a different location… and the mountains have been rearranged by the Górals many times since then…

So is Poland a big country or a small one?


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?).


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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).


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!

Cult Comedies

The first time I saw a Polish comedy occurred years before I moved to Poland or even had met a Pole. When I was a teenager, the British TV station Channel 4 often showed some rather obscure movies. One of the films was Polish and led to the following discussion at my school between a group of teenage boys:

Boy1: Hey lads, there was a film on TV last called ‘Sex Mission’!

Boy2: Shit, I missed it.

Boy3: Don’t worry. I recorded it.

Boy2: Was there any sex in it?

Boy1: No sex, but lots of naked women.

Boy2: Can I borrow the tape?

The VHS tape was passed from boy to boy so we could all watch the film. There were even some heated arguments about who got to borrow it first. When he made the film, I doubt that Juliusz Machulski imagined his film would cause fights between teenage boys at the other end of Europe.

So what did a 14 year-old Scottish boy make of Seksmisja?

  • I remember finding it really funny, especially Jerzy Stuhr’s performance.
  • I was knowledgeable enough to get the joke about Marie Curie being a woman (a może Curie-Skłodowska też?).
  • I learned that the Polish word for ‘replay’ is the same as in English… only there are too few of them.
  • When Maks says kierunek Wschód, tam musi być jakaś cywilizajca (we go East, there must be some civilization that way), I thought it was a practical suggestion. Missing the irony completely, I knew that civilization started in Greece, and that it was east of Scotland. So, I thought that going in the direction of Plato, Aristotle and Homer seemed like a good call.

Years later when I moved to Poland and Poles urged me to watch a film called Seksmisja, I could tell them ‘actually, I saw that years ago!Of course, I would pretend that I watched it because I was an intelligent child who liked foreign films… and not because of its title!

Seksmisja is part of the Polish comedy pantheon. When I started living in Poland, there was a consistent pattern to the films that Poles recommended, and I was repeatedly encouraged to watch comedies from the 70s and 80s, particularly Rejs, Seksmisja and Miś.

But what is it like to watch these films through foreign eyes? Did I find them funny? Did I understand the satire? Did I even understand what’s going on?

First up, I decided to try the film that Poles pronounced ‘Race’. With such a title, I assumed it was a fast-paced action movie – the Polish version of ‘The Fast and Furious’ or something. But actually, it turned out that the title was Rejs meaning ‘cruise’, and the film wasn’t very fast, and it definitely wasn’t furious.


And I must admit that when I watched Rejs for the first time I understood it less than I understood Seksmisja as a 14-year old! While Miś and Seksmisja have a clear story that you can follow, the plot in Rejs is like the kiełbasa belonging to Jan Himilsbach’s character – it disappears in front of your eyes. Who are the passengers? Where are they going? Why do they have all those meetings? Why does the stowaway (played by Stanisław Tym) start organizing cultural events? Why all the gymnastics?

And the language is another challenge. It’s not the tempo of the speech – which is actually quite slow and clear – it’s that some of the vocabulary goes way over my head:

  • służbowo
  • kaowiec
  • tendencyjny

It’s by saying służbowo that Stanisław Tym is allowed onto the boat in the first place. I understood that it meant ‘on business’, but he didn’t look like he was there to repair the engine or check the navigation system, so what kind of business did he have? Another key moment is when someone writes głupi kaowiec in the ladies toilet. What’s a kaowiec? And why is it written in the ladies’ toilet? My first thought was that kaowiec was the person who made cocoa for the crew, but wouldn’t that be a kakaowiec?

When the engineer Mamoń says that a w filmie polskim, proszę pananic się nie dzieje. (in Polish films… nothing happens) he wasn’t even considering the perspective of a foreigner who is watching Rejs for the first time. Without knowing the language, the political situation in Poland at the time and key reference points in everyday culture, a foreigner misses so much that, indeed, on first viewing, it does seem like nothing is going on.

In Miś, on the other hand, there’s so much going on, but the challenge is to separate the satire from reality. Not having lived in Poland during the communist period, I didn’t know which scenes are based on real situations, which jokes are satire and which were invented for the film:

  • were the spoons in milk bars really chained to the tables?
  • in kiosks were the best-selling products shampoo, meat and aftershave (for drinking)?
  • did they really sing patriotic songs about Trasa Łazienkowska?
  • was kiełbasa a form of currency?
  • were passports handed over during a ceremony with music and dancing dwarves?

Another thing that confused me was the scene when trainer Jarząbek sings Łubu dubu, łubu dubu, niech żyje nam prezes naszego klubu. Niech żyje nam! I had no idea what was going on. Why was he singing into a tape recorder hidden in the wardrobe? What does łubu dubu mean? Is this satire or is the actor just a famous Polish rapper? It’s so easy to Miś-understand!

What I love in Bareja’s films are the huge number of supporting characters who have short vignettes – whether it’s drunks lying in the street who comment as the main characters pass by, or people who burst into kiosks carrying their mother on a stretcher – it gives his films the feel of comedy sketch show and reminds me of Monty Python movies. In Miś, for instance, the film repeatedly shows two cleaning ladies sitting in the Gents toilets at the Tęcza sports club. These women gossip about Ryszard’s situation and interact with a male employee who comes in to use the facilities, and thanks to this, the audience gets an update on the plot. I couldn’t help wondering whether they had a dramatic purpose as a ‘Greek chorus’ or were they included because there were always two cleaning ladies eating lunch and gossiping in the toilets during communist times?

One of the interesting things in Miś is how the UK is perceived. While it was portrayed as a safe place to keep your money, Ryszard does have to put up with terrible bureaucracy when he discovers there’s a strike at the bank. Yet the best part is Paluch’s description of his imagined trip to the UK – trudno wytrzymać człowieku…Taką rudą wódę piją, na myszach!… taki malutki wypijesz, dwa dni nieprzytomny jesteś (it’s hard to cope…they drink this red water, for/made of mice…drink a small one and you’re unconscious for two days).

Being Scottish, I was keen to hear his thoughts on whisky, but I couldn’t work out if he meant it was ‘for mice’ or ‘made from mice’. In either case, it’s ironic because my description of Poland would be similar: ‘it’s hard to cope…they drink this white water made from mice.. drink a small one and you’re unconscious for two days’.

In conclusion, I definitely think that these films should definitely come with some sort of rating. Some films are rated 18 or 15, others are PG (parental guidance), which means a child can watch but should have an adult with them. These Polish comedies should have a new category of rating:

  • PolGPolish Guidance – Foreigners can watch these films but should be accompanied by a Pole who will help to provide context and explain the jokes. If an unaccompanied foreigner tries to buy a ticket for one of these films, then they should be escorted out of the cinema by security.

Besides the guidance, there’s one other trick to really appreciating these films, and that’s to watch them at least three or four times. To quote Maks in Seksmisja, what you need more than anything is a… replay, replay!

So finally we come to the key question: did I find these films funny? Undoubtedly, yes! They are hilarious, and that is saying something when you consider that I only got 30% of the jokes during the first viewing!

Back when I was 14 years old, my first ever contact with Polish culture or the Polish language was watching Seksmisja with subtitles. If the film had been dull, if the jokes weren’t funny or the acting wooden, then I doubt I would have ended up living in Poland years later.

What bigger influence can a movie have than that?

Brzechwa Blues

If there’s one thing that a learner of Polish has to eventually confront, it’s the influence of the poet Jan Brzechwa on the Polish language.

I remember being in a room full of Poles and asking what the word leń (lazy bones) meant in English. In response, one woman answered by saying Na tapczanie… and immediately three other Poles joined in and said …siedzi leń. Nic nie robi cały dzień. They were all smiling and laughing and looked at me as if they expected me to understand what was going on. I didn’t. All I knew was that I asked for the meaning of a word in Polish, and it triggered a communal recital of a poem.

And this kind of thing happens a lot. One simple word or question is enough to suddenly transport a group of Poles back into the world of Brzechwa, where they recite poems full of impulsive animals, talking vegetables and the various problems of birds. I am constantly amazed how Poles not only know his work, but have learned it by heart.

I started to wonder if that’s how children learn Polish. In Scotland where I come from, we start school at the age of 5. When I discovered that Poles don’t start school until they are 7, I was shocked and couldn’t understand what kids do with all the free time. Now I know. They spend the years from ages 3 to 7 intensively memorizing Brzechwa poems!

And what impact does this have on foreigners learning Polish? It makes the task a lot harder! You see, Brzechwa was so creative with the Polish language that he made it more complex and idiomatic. And because his poetry is on the tips of their tongues, Poles often respond in idioms or verse rather than in simple sentences. During my time in Poland, I’ve heard the following lines used instead of normal speech:

  • A to feler, westchnął seler
  • Co, kapusta?! Głowa pusta?!
  • Czy ta kwoka, proszę pana, była dobrze wychowana?
  • Jak pan może, panie pomidorze?!
  • Wybiera się sójka za morze, ale wybrać się nie może

Not knowing much about the intelligence of cabbages, the migration habits of jays, or the social skills of hens, I was lost. And even after these expressions were explained and translated, not having read Brzechwa’s poetry, I just couldn’t get a proper feel for them.


I don’t know whether Brzechwa invented all these idioms himself or just played with them, but he definitely seems to be responsible for their popularity. Indeed, it’s the opening line from his poem Chrząszcz that has set the bar for the difficulty of pronouncing Polish. As I’ve written elsewhere, this sentence is used as a mocking test of a foreigner’s doomed attempt to speak the Polish language.

When these idioms arise, I call it a ‘Brzechwa Moment’. These are times when Polish enters this weird poetic world, and sometimes, it’s not even a Brzechwa poem that causes the trouble. One time, I wanted to point out to a colleague that the weekend was almost upon us:

Me: Jutro sobota

Pole: …imieniny kota.

Me: Słucham?

Pole: Kot się ubiera, idzie do fryzjera

Me: Jesteś okej?

I knew it had been a long, tiring week, but when my colleague started talking about her cat’s name day and its plans to go to the hairdresser, I started to worry that she might need more than two days off!

Eventually I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t enough to learn vocabulary and grammar. If I wanted to communicate fluently in Polish, then I just had to memorize some Brzechwa. So I went shopping for a book of his poems. I was looking for something targeted towards Polish language learners – perhaps titled Wiersze dla obcokrajowców, którzy chcą uczyć się języka polskiego z poezją Jana Brzechwy, bo nie ma innego wyjścia (Poems for foreigners who want to learn Polish from the poetry of Jan Brzechwa because there’s no alternative) – but there seems to be a gap in the market since I couldn’t find such an edition.

So I bought a regular book for Polish children and started by learning the poem about the beetle in Szczebrzeszyn. As well as picking up some crucial Polish vocabulary – gąszcz (thicket), gaje (grove) and brzęczeć (buzz), I also learned that a wół is an ox and that they are easily tricked by beetles. While the rhymes are a great memory aid, the problem with learning from Brzechwa poems is that you can’t use little shortcuts like guessing the meanings of the words from context. For instance, take Kaczka Dziwaczka:

z apteki poszła do praczki

kupować pocztowe znaczki

(from the chemists she went to a washerwoman to buy some stamps)

Everything in a Brzechwa poem is unexpected, illogical and absurd, so you need to double check every word. And it’s embarrassing knowing that every five year old child in Poland understands the sentence a niech tę kaczkę gęś kopnie!, but I can’t work out whether it’s the duck is kicking the goose or the other way around.

When I moved on to a poem called Na Straganie, in which the vegetables in a market stall have a conversation about their various problems including lying too long on the stall or who would be the best marriage partner for a beetroot, I started to wonder whether, as well as shaping the language, Brzechwa also shapes how Poles think? After reading that poem, I empathize more with the vegetables when I’m waiting in a queue at a stall. How long have the chives been forced to sit here? How are the turnips feeling today? Is the cabbage right to prophesize that they will all end up in soup?

So I’m making progress, but it’s a long, slow road. I’m starting to fear that not having had those childhood years of intensive memorizing is too much of a handicap. In the end, I may have to accept speaking Polish without the ability to join the group recitals of Brzechwa poems.

I’ll be able to communicate in Polish, but only like the sea creatures in the poem Ryby, Żaby i Raki.

Like the ryby, it will be na niby,

and like the żaby, only be aby-aby,

and like the rak, my Polish usage will always be byle jak.

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?


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.


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.


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?



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!

Bullet Points

In Polish, złoczyńca means villain, złowrogi means sinister, so when I first came across the word złożony, I assumed it meant ‘evil wife’. As well as being surprised that Polish had a word for this, I also wondered whether there was a word for evil husband too – złomąż perhaps?

As it turned out, złożony doesn’t describe an evil wife at all, but actually means ‘complex’. Although I came across it by accident, I was surprised I hadn’t encountered it before. You see, for a foreigner, Poland can be a complex place – the language is difficult, the bureaucracy is Byzantine and it takes three days just to make good bigos. For most foreigners, solving every day problems isn’t so simple.

That said, when I heard about the blog by Katarzyna Tusk called Make Life Easier, I couldn’t help but laugh. Good luck, Kasia, I thought, making life easier is a very American ambition, and I’m not sure that Poles have the same aspiration. In fact, I actually think that Poles expect life to be complex.

I once heard about an American director who sent an email to a group of Polish developers – ‘I’ll be over in Poland next month. Please prepare a project plan to implement the new version of the software‘. The Poles got to work.

When the American arrived he was presented with a 250-page document outlining every detail of the project, its timelines, process maps and contingencies.

What’s this?‘ the American asked

It’s the project plan,’ the Poles replied proudly.

No, no, no‘ said the American. ‘I just need something short. Just the steps ABC and some deadlines. Can you prepare that for tomorrow?

The Poles worked all night and reduced the document down to most essential 50 pages and even then they had to cut out many things they considered crucial. The next day they handed the 50 pages to the American, saying ‘ we cut it down as much as could‘.

The American sighed and repeated his request. ‘No, guys. I don’t have time to go through all this. Just give me a one-page document with the key steps and completion dates. That’s all.’

The Poles were confused and returned to their desks, muttering ‘What’s this? A kindergarten?!

I can relate to that American because I had similar experiences while working as a trainer. Whenever I presented a technique or solution, experience taught me that most Poles would respond in one of three ways:

  • it can’t be that simple – some participants would dismiss the solution by pointing out that the approach was too simple and therefore insufficient.
  • what if…? – other participants would come up with hypothetical scenarios in which the technique would fail.
  • yes, but it won’t work in Poland – and finally, at least one participant would always point out that Poland is a special place where such techniques don’t work.

It happened so frequently that I began to question my own assumptions. Do Poles actually expect life to be complex? Do they trust simple solutions? If something is short and straightforward, then, to a Polish mind, does that mean it’s not an accurate reflection of reality?

In the UK and especially in the US, people love simple solutions. From 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to 10% Happier, we like books with a discrete number of ideas, straightforward categories and an ABC series of steps to reach success. There’s even a self-help book called The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results which you can also buy online in a summarized format if you don’t have time to read the whole book. Yes, that’s right. Some people believe that success can be reduced to one simple truth… yet they still don’t have time to read all the details!

Indeed, we Anglo-Saxons hate detail so much that we invented a way to kill it – bullet points. Bullet points are a way of saying ‘just forget about all the baggage. Give me the key points. All the rest is a waste of time.’ In fact, bullet points are what’s left once you’ve shot all the unnecessary information!


Maybe I should write a book called The One Anglo-Saxon Idea that Poles have a Problem with. To give you a summarised version (in case you don’t have time to read the whole text), it would present the hypothesis that Brits and Americans think it’s possible to apply the same solution in multiple contexts, while Poles believe that every context is different and requires a separate strategy.

And the most different, the most special context is… Polish reality… which is an expression I’ve heard countless times. Yes, but it wouldn’t work in Polish reality. Why not? Because it’s just too complex!

So, to appeal to Poles, I get the impression that the publishers would need to translate the title of Steven Covey’s book from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to 7 Habits, 14 Problems with those Habits and 21 Exceptions to the Rules of Highly Effective People.

And finally, we come to the Polish language, where there’s nothing simpler than food – bułka z masłem, kaszka z mlekiem (easypeasy) – I get the impression that you could combine any food with another food and a Pole would understand that you’re talking about something straightforward – nie martw się, to jajko z majonezem.

However, my favourite illustration of all this is the expression prosty jak budowa cepa (as simple as the construction of a flail). It’s very ironic that the Polish expression to describe something that is uncomplicated… talks about something I’ve never seen and never used. I don’t know what a flail looks like, I don’t know how to build one, and honestly, I don’t even know what it’s used for.

So, to me, all this Polish complexity is prosty jak budowa cepa… literally!

How to Catch a Spy

In war films and novels, spies often try to learn a foreign language so perfectly that they can pretend to be a regular citizen in that country. However, despite years of intensive training, learning the minutiae of the target culture, one little slip up is enough to reveal the spy’s secret identity. For instance, in Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basterds, a British spy in Germany speaks perfect German and almost fools a member of the Gestapo. However, when ordering a round of drinks, he shows the number three by holding up three fingers rather than two fingers and one thumb. This little piece of British body language gives him away and the Germans arrest him immediately.

So I began to wonder what little aspects of Polish language and culture would a spy have to learn in order to pass him or herself off as a Pole? Alternatively, what little aspects of Polish society might be potential traps for our spy, causing him or her to slip up and reveal that they are not actually Polish?

Landing in Poland

Our spy needs to stay alert as soon as the plane approaches Poland. While he might be worried about border control, his problems start a little earlier than this. When the plane touches down safely, some Poles begin to clap. I’ve never known why they do this. Is because they are relieved that they didn’t crash, because they are so thrilled to be on Polish soil, or are they giving the pilot a round of applause for flying well? I’ve no idea, but whatever it is, to pass himself off as Polish, our spy has two choices – (1) applaud and thereby pretend to be a Pole from an older generation who doesn’t have much experience of flying, or (2) look embarrassed, thereby pretending to be a younger Pole with more flying experience. If he looks surprised, then it’s obvious that he’s not Polish.

The Napkin Test

The next place where our spy needs to be alert is in a Polish milk bar. His cultural training will hopefully have taught him that a milk bar doesn’t sell milk and it’s not a bar, but it’s when he sits down that issues might arise. In Polish bars there are usually napkins on each table. These thin squares of paper are arranged in a triangular fan and held in a small stand. The challenge is to take one without pulling out the rest. I’m amazed by Poles who, without even looking, gracefully pluck out a napkin from the centre while carrying out a conversation. I’ve been in Poland for years, but I still haven’t mastered this, and have to lift out all the napkins, unfold the bundle, remove one, fold them and put them back in the stand. I can imagine the sweat on our spy’s brow as he reaches for the napkins, knowing that if he pulls the wrong one, all of them will spill out and his identity will be revealed to the entire milk bar.


Likewise, he needs to be careful with the salt and pepper pots. Unlike in the UK, where a pot with one hole contains salt and a pot with three holes contains pepper, it’s the other way around in Poland. If he ends up shaking pepper onto his chips, then he’s a dead man.

Suppressing British Impulses

It won’t be easy, but our spy will need to suppress intense British impulses during his stay in Poland. This will be especially difficult concerning tea. Firstly, he needs to break the mental association between tea and time. In Poland, you can drink tea whenever you want and there’s no specific tea time in the late afternoon when you must take a break for tea. Secondly, if he really has to add milk to his tea, then he mustn’t take offense if the waiter brings warm milk. No matter how ghastly it is to put warm milk in tea, he’ll just have to pretend to enjoy it.


No matter how much prior training he gets, it’s still going to be a challenge to queue like a Pole. The first thing he needs to know is when not to queue. If he just has a question, then he shouldn’t wait in line, but instead barge straight to the counter, interrupt whoever is being served and loudly ask his question. Politely waiting in line to ask a question is a dead giveaway that he’s a Brit.

Body language is another potential telltale sign that he’s a spy. A true Pole looks a little anxious when queuing as if someone is suddenly going to jump ahead of them. This is especially important if you’re standing in a line. Here you should constantly encroach into the personal space of the person ahead of you. If this results in physical contact, whatever you do, don’t apologise. That would be a clear signal that you’re British.


Of course, our spy needs to get his clothes right if he’s going to blend in effectively. One thing he needs to bear in mind is the amount of clothing. If he wants to look Polish, especially in winter, then he needs to wear as least twice as many items of clothing as he would in the UK.

For Poles this attachment to multiple layers starts in childhood. One thing that did surprise me about the Polish winter was the amount of clothes Polish children are forced to wear. This is fine if it’s minus ten, but if it’s plus five degrees, do they need to be dressed like an arctic explorer? One shock that most Poles get in the UK is when they see young children wearing shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops… in winter. On the whole, this difference is harder for a Polish spy in the UK than a British one in Poland.

Public Meetings

A spy needs to meet other operatives and exchange messages in public places. What potential issues could arise? First of all, there’s time-keeping. If you agree to meet your Polish agents on a park bench, don’t give them up for dead if they are 10 minutes late. In Poland, 3 o’clock lasts from 3.00-3.15, so it’s possible to be 15 minutes late and still be on time.

The next question is what to carry with you so that you look normal. Poles buy huge quantities of flowers, so if you’re carrying a bunch of flowers, any one observing you will assume you’re on your way to someone’s house, a church or a grave. But our spy will need to be careful – Poles always buy an odd number of flowers, so if he’s carrying a dozen red roses, then they’ll be for his own grave!

Our spy should also bear in mind that Poles have a long history with clandestine and conspiratorial activity, so don’t try to outsmart them. Fortunately, for our spy, firanki (net curtains) never went out of fashion in Poland, so he can simply rent an apartment opposite some key location and do all the spying he wants from the window!

Referring to Oneself

James Bond doesn’t go undercover, he’s not that type of spy. However, his way of introducing himself would actually lend itself to being an effective agent in Poland. ‘Bond, James Bond‘ mirrors the way a Pole will often say ‘Kowalski, Jacek‘ when introducing himself in a formal situation as opposed to the British way of saying the first name followed by the last name.

Another potential pitfall when referring to yourself is not to overuse the word Ja. Hopefully, our spy has paid attention during language lessons and learned that Poles incorporate the pronoun into the verb and just say jestem or mam instead of ja jestem, ja mam etc.

Personally, I’d fail this particularly test as I’m guilty of saying ja too often. My wife laughs every time I explain away my poor Polish by saying ja-aaaaa jestem Szkotem. As well as sounding like Sean Connery when I elongate the ja-aaaaa, it gives away my foreignness both in form and content.

The Departure Gate

In the unlikely event that our spy survives all of the potential pitfalls mentioned above, there’s one last test before he can board a flight to safety.

In an airport, just before a flight is called, you can tell which passengers are Polish and which are not just by looking. How? Well, all the non-Poles will be sitting, waiting for an announcement that the plane is ready for boarding. All the Poles, however, will already be standing in a queue, waiting to board. Our spy, to avoid being caught, will need to stay alert. As soon as the first Pole decides that it’s time to board, he needs to hurry to the boarding game and join the emerging queue with the other Poles. Then, and only then, might he complete his mission successfully.