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!

bullets1

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.

bond1

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.

Queues

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.

Clothing

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.

Combine Harvester

When you’re learning a foreign language, you tend to learn one word or expression at a time. There are some words that you can learn in a few minutes, some require repetition over a few days, and some words take years to learn.

That’s how it was with kombinować. It took me years to fully understand what it meant.

At first, I thought it was a no-brainer. Yep, that’ll be the Polish version of ‘to combine’. Easy-peasy.

But in practice, no one ever said what two things were being combined. They just said on coś kombinuje, and in my head I was thinking combine what with what? As a beginner, it’s rude to correct a native-speaker of a language, but I felt like correcting Poles by asking ‘doesn’t that verb need an object, well actually, at least two objects?

I bit my tongue and decided to do some research instead. My pocket dictionary translated kombinować as ‘to wangle’. I hate it when you check the meaning of a word, but you don’t understand the translation into your own language. Wangle, what does wangle mean? No one ever wangles where I come from!

Fortunately, the dictionary also translated the expression on coś kombinuje as ‘he’s up to something’. Okay, I thought, so it’s negative and means that someone is trying to hide their true intentions in order to achieve something.

But, one day when we were driving around looking for a parking space, a friend said ‘coś wykombinujemy‘ and parked the car on the pavement between a lamp post and a bus stop. He wasn’t suggesting we enter into a conspiracy or try to hide anything. To my ears, it sounded like he was saying ‘let’s try something creative’. So kombinować had a positive meaning as well, especially if you add wy- at the beginning.

Just when I thought I was getting to grips with kombinować, next up was kombinator. Oh great, not only do I need to work out what the verb means, there’s a noun as well!

To foreign ears, kombinator sounds like a profession in the engineering sector. There’s a branch of mathematics called ‘combinatorial analysis’, and I imagined some Wyższa Szkoła Kombinowania where you study for years to master the science behind kombinowanie.

As far as I could tell, kombinować can be positive or negative depending on the context, but it seemed that calling someone a kombinator was always derogatory. If you took the kombinowanie too far, then you crossed a line and became a kombinator. But what was the deciding factor? Does a kombinator need to break a law, infringe on others’ interests, or simply do it too frequently?

And how to translate kombinator? The best English equivalent is wheeler-dealer from the idiomatic expression to ‘wheel and deal’. Most people associate this with selling used cars, a business activity that certainly offers plenty of scope for kombinowanie.

The more I encountered this word, the broader its meaning became. The more dictionaries I checked, the more possible translations – be up to no good, deceive, contrive, scheme, figure something out, work an angle, fiddle, hustle, wheel and deal, get creative, juggle, try something, conspire, live on one’s wits! And every dictionary gives a different set of translations – I must admit that I’ve never seen such variation in the translation of a single verb. The publishers of English-Polish dictionaries should hold a conference just to agree one set of possible translations…and see if they can narrow it down to four or five English options!

I began to realise that kombinowanie is no ordinary word describing an ordinary activity. It’s part of something deeper, more significant to Polish culture. It’s something of a skill – a problem-solving ability that Poles are particularly good at. The only way to really understand what kombinować means is to observe Poles in action over a number of years, example after example, context after context.

And that’s what I did.

One of my favourite examples of kombinowanie that I’ve observed concerns a removal company. I once employed a guy to move some furniture and actually traveled with him from city to city. He was bald, unshaven and permanently wore a bluetooth headset in each ear which made him look like a pirate. He had two mobile phones and explained that he had two sim cards in each one. He advertised as four different removal firms with four different numbers. When a client called and asked for a price, he would quote a high figure. When the client called him again, thinking they were calling a different firm, he would change his voice and quote an even higher figure. The client, assuming they had shopped around and found the best price, would call back and hire the first firm.

Genius!

oscar

There’s a lot of creativity in kombinowanie. If there were Oscars for the best global examples, then Poles would win every year!

Of course, in this Oscar category, Poles would have one huge, unfair advantage – only they’d know what the word kombinować actually means!

Can you Trust the Angols?

I was once on an intercity bus sitting behind two Polish men. One of them was talking on his mobile phone, loudly discussing a business deal in English.

At the end of the conversation, he said have a nice day and hung up, switched to Polish and started talking to his companion. He described the deal and how much he would earn, and sounded very pleased with the arrangement. But his companion, who was older…and apparently wiser, wasn’t convinced. He turned to his companion and said in a calm, quiet voice:

‘Just remember… the Angol is not your friend!’

I was shocked. It was a generalization. He meant all Angols.

Being an Angol* myself, I don’t believe that British people are faultless, but on the whole, I think we’re trustworthy.

Aren’t we?

So why did this Pole say ‘remember, the Angol is not your friend’? Why did lean forward as if he was giving his companion a message that would protect him? Why did he use a hushed tone of voice that suggested he was talking about a dangerous alien race? Why would he suggest that Angols only pretend to be your friend?

Well, there is one thing about British people that doesn’t inspire trust – our communication style.

While Poles speak directly and express their opinions honestly, Brits speak very indirectly and hide their opinions in vague language. From experience I know that this can be confusing and frustrating for Poles.

I remember a Polish colleague once asked me ‘what does it mean when a British person says ‘I’m not impressed’? If you could put it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning it’s awful and 10 meaning it’s fantastic. Would it be a 7 or a 2?’

Oh, that would be a 2’ I told him. ‘It’s like saying that something is ‘very bad’.

Why didn’t he just say that!’ he replied, clearly frustrated.

There are numerous articles translating expressions used by British people into normal language. For instance, when a British person says I agree up to a point, it actually means that they disagree with you. Or when they say that something could be better, it means that it’s very poor. And if you cook a meal and serve it to a British person who says that it tastes interesting…just throw away that recipe!

królowa

In his book The Right Mind*², the psychologist Robert Orstein tells a story of an American businessman visiting the UK. The businessman had just given a presentation to a group of British directors. After the presentation, one of the British directors stood up and said the following:

‘I’m not sure I, or anyone here, will agree completely with absolutely everything the speaker has said, but we thank him for his trouble in coming here to attempt to make a difficult idea possibly more clear to us.’

The Brits in the audience were shocked, but the American kept smiling. He didn’t get it.

In British English, the above sentence basically means ‘everything this guy said is bullshit.’ But British people rarely give feedback in such direct language. Foreigners (Americans included) find it very difficult to understand a British person when they are giving feedback in such an indirect style.

Growing up in the UK, you just naturally learn to communicate this way. It wasn’t until I lived abroad that I realised how confusing this can be.

So, can you trust the Angols? Well, I have to admit that the British style of giving feedback raises this very question. If we don’t say what we mean…explicitly and honestly…then how can you trust us? Why wouldn’t you believe that we’re trying to deceive you?

To defend the Angols, I’d like to point out that we’re just trying to be polite. In the UK it’s considered rude to express your opinions too directly.

So if an Angol doesn’t share his or her opinions very directly…if they confuse you with very opaque feedback…don’t worry, he or she is just trying to be polite

…because they do want to be your friend!

 

*I am from Scotland, but understand that the Polish term Angol refers to people from Britain and not just England.

*²p102, The Right Mind: Making Sense of the Hemispheres, Robert Ornstein, Hardcore Brace & Company 1997

Sign Language

I was once sitting at a hot desk next to a door that was the exit/entrance to a large open-space office. On that particular day, the door was out of order. A sign saying awaria/out of order was clearly visible in the middle of the door. I spent eight hours sitting there and noted a curious cultural difference.

The ‘foreigners’, i.e. Brits, Americans and other nationalities that approached the door, stopped around two metres away when they saw the sign, turned and walked around the open space to the next door.

The Poles approached the door, paused two metres away when they saw the sign, and then marched up to the door and turned the door handle. Discovering that the door was indeed out of order, they walked around the open space to the next door.

I asked a guy I knew why he had tried the door handle.

Maybe they repaired the door and forgot to take the sign down,’ he replied.

I didn’t think of that.’

Or maybe the carpet is getting worn and they want us to use the other door.

You think?

This is Poland,’ he explained, ‘just because they put up a sign saying ‘awaria’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s out of order.’

And that’s just it.

A dictionary can give you the definition of a word… but experience tells you what it means to people!

door

And that experience was a perfect illustration of Poles’ attitude towards authorities…don’t trust everything they tell you…especially not at first. If the building administrator puts up a sign saying that a door is out of order, then it’s worth verifying that fact yourself. They might have other motives!

And this is especially true in public administration. In a typical urząd you need to fight to get any information at all, and when you do get some answers, one clerk will tell you one thing, while another clerk will tell you something completely different. To achieve your goal, you need to gather information, but the quality of information you get from authorities in Poland is often poor and contradictory. It’s no wonder that Poles want to check for themselves!

So forget the dictionary definition, if I see an awaria sign on a lift, door or ticket machine, I don’t walk away immediately.

In Poland it’s always worth checking to see if the door is working just fine. You might just get where you’re going.

Muchomore, Mucholess

One regret I have about living in Poland is that my Polish wife doesn’t like mushroom-picking and has never taken me on a trip to the forest with a basket. One of the rites of passage for foreigners into Polish culture is the first time they are invited to go mushroom-picking. My wife has failed to give me this basic initiation …and education.

As far as mushrooms are concerned, my mental basket is empty.

In the UK we don’t have many forests left. That’s why, we don’t have much affection for mushrooms despite the wet climate. To us, mushrooms are small, white buttons that you buy in plastic-wrapped packs in Tesco. They are grown in darkened warehouses and don’t have any taste. Indeed, the only people who actually go mushroom-picking in the UK are desperate students looking for a psychedelic experience.

Consequently, English speakers only use one word for the fungi that grows in the woods – mushroom. If you want to define them more precisely, then we borrow from French – chanterelle, champingon etc.

In Poland, however, mushrooms are a passion and their appearance marks a time of the year. Not only are they a delicious food, but they are a hobby, a source of income and an activity that unites the whole family. The entire population can get involved – you just need to get up early enough and know where to look.

While English speakers only use one generic expression, Polish has the generic name grzyby, as well as a different name for each type of mushroom – borowik/prawdziwek, rydz, kurka, kania, pieczarka, maślak, gąska, koźlarz, podgrzybek, zajączek. And all Poles know the difference between a kurka and a gąska from 100 metres away through a dark, damp forest.

In English, we do have a specific word for the poisonous mushroom known in Polish as muchomor. It’s called a toadstool, i.e. a chair that a toad can sit on. This makes it sound quite harmless… even cute. At least in Polish, they give cute names to edible mushrooms – kurka (little chicken), gąska (little goose) and zajączek (little hare), while giving aggressive names to poisonous mushrooms – szatan (satan), and muchomor (fly-killer). Now that’s a clear message!

grzyby

Whenever I ask Poles how they acquired this skill, the answer is pretty much the same:

Me: How did you learn all this?

Pole: When I was a child my grandma (or grandpa) took me to the woods to pick mushrooms. Didn’t your grandma take you?

Me: No.

Pole: Why not?

Me: Well, we don’t have forests. We cut down all the trees centuries ago to build ships.

Pole: That’s a shame.

Me: Yes, we gained an empire, but we lost the opportunity to go mushroom-picking.

Pole: There must be some forests left.

Me: A few. But, in any case, my grandma wouldn’t know the difference between a mushroom and toadstool. If she had taken me mushroom-picking as a child, then I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you now.

I worry about the consequences of not learning this crucial Polish skill. I’ve tried to warn my wife – what if there’s another war and we have to live wild in the forest? Not knowing the difference between a szatan and a prawdziwek, I will probably be poisoned before the first shot is fired!

So far my arguments haven’t convinced her… I’m still hunting for mushrooms in Tesco.

Horror Show

My seven favourite Polish words are:

  • dramat (drama)
  • fatalnie (fatal)
  • katastrofa (catastrophe)
  • koszmar (nightmare)
  • makabra (macabre)
  • masakra (massacre)
  • tragedia (tragedy)

These words are incredibly common in Polish. They are used to describe how terrible everyday experience is – the weather, traffic, your workload, relationships etc – not important stuff, just things you encounter every day.

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I once attended a management training with a group of Polish managers. It was a bit dull and there was lots of listening to do, so for a whole day I counted the frequency of these words during breaks, chats or group discussions. I counted 11 masakras, 4 koszmars, 2 tragedias and 1 dramat. And that was just in one day.

When using these words, Poles exaggerate about how bad things are. I’ve heard many Poles refer to the weather as a massacre (masakra) which is a bit of a stretch. I mean, a ‘massacre’ is when lots of people die…violently! A bit of rain just doesn’t compare.

As a foreigner, I don’t have a feel for which of these words is the worst. Is a koszmar worse than a masakra? If you have one dramat and one katastrofa in a day is that worse than two tradegias? I don’t know, but Poles seems to have a feel for the scale of horror involved.

I’ve come to the conclusion that these words are used in the Polish version of small talk. In the UK, we break the ice with others by making rather meaningless statements about the weather or travel etc. This is called ‘small talk’.

In Poland, small talk looks like this. Imagine two colleagues meeting in the morning at work:

Magda: Ale masakra!
Janusz: Co?
Magda: Godzinę stałem w korkach.
Janusz: To jeszcze nic. Ja stałem półtorej godziny.

Magda: Massacre!
Janusz: What?
Magda: Traffic jams. I was stuck for an hour.
Janusz: That’s nothing. I was stuck for an hour and a half!

The standard opening is to use one of the seven words (especially after the word ‘ale’) to start the conversation. This arouses curiosity and invites the listener to ask what’s so bad. Then you can describe the horror experience. After that, the listener’s role is to find a worse example – as Janusz does in the dialogue above. By the end of the exchange, both parties agree that things are bad, but disagree about which experience is worse.

Ice broken in the Polish way.

Two Poles, Three Opinions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red for Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Many Cups of Tea?

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

Three.

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

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

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

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

cup of tea

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

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

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

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