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!


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.