Thursday, 24 March 2011

Stranger in a strange land (or, ‘Poles don’t do small talk’)

[Disclaimer: This article contains a selection of impressions.  Now, impressions are a tricky ground.  Usually I like to write and speak of issues which involve clearly objective data.  I feel less comfortable in writing about my impressions of Poles, as my impressions and that of other people can be wrong, in that they cannot possibly describe all Poles.  Even statements by Poles about Poles are to be distrusted, as these statements have a lot to do with their own desire to promote positive or negative propaganda.  It is impossible to know what all Poles are like.  In any case, any statement about other people is also a statement about oneself.]

‘Poles don’t do small talk’, said a client of mine.  I had never thought about that issue before.  I do trainings about cultural differences and just a few weeks before this discussion spoke with a group of young people about different polarities with regards to things like attitudes to time (hold to a plan or be spontaneous).  One of the polarities is fast verses slow information.  Advertisements are examples of fast information as  one understands them straight away.  No thought is necessary.  Slow information is more about taking time to understand the message, such as when reading poetry.  Small talk is fast information.

I thought to myself, do Poles really not do small talk?  I tried to think of examples:

In my local fruit and veg shop I know the people who work there, as I have been shopping there for a  few years now.  I am the foreign guy who speaks Polish; something that pleases them.  One day I was buying the usual veg and asked for eggs and lemons.  That day was Shrove Tuesday, therefore I was to make some pancakes.  I told her, ‘Today in Great Britain we eat pancakes, as it is the day before the start of the fast’.  Her response was to say ‘you need some flour?’.  In other words, my comment was seen as a business transaction, not small talk.

I know the cousin of a friend.  We have spoken with each other a few times at events and parties.  I saw him one day on the street by where I live.   The conversation went like this:

Me: Hi *gives hand to shake*
Him: Hi *shakes hand*
Me: How are you?
Him: OK, and you?
Me: OK.
Me: Err….nice weather today, eh?
Him: Yes.
Me: Err….you busy with work?
Him: Not too bad
Me: Yeah, well, I have a busy time coming up.
Me: So…err….
Him: Right, I need to be getting off.
Me: OK, see you.
Him: Cheers.

I thought he was unfriendly, or found it strange that I spoke to him.  Or thought he didn’t like me.  Or something.
So, maybe my client is right.  Maybe these examples prove the thesis that Poles don’t do small-talk.  Of course, these are just two examples.  Perhaps Poles are busy small-talking* to their hearts content and I haven’t noticed.  Perhaps the weather is not considered to be important in Poland (ah, the weather, the subject that produces a social glue in GB as it gives us something to small-talk about).  Maybe there’s a whole array of topics that Poles small-talk about that I haven’t learned about yet.

I have heard the story of an older Pole who went into a shop in Germany and got annoyed with the cashier sayings things like 'Hello', and 'Nice day today, eh?'  She said she only would have spoken with the cashier if she wanted something.
The thing for me is, what is the alternative to small-talk?  Really, I have no idea.  I am so cultured in doing it that I cannot contemplate the alternative.  Now, the theory is that slow-information (i.e. doing the opposite of small-talk) exists to help deeper relationships to happen.  Social networks certainly appear to be stronger in Poland.  People actually tell you how they feel when you ask ‘How are you?’ People ask me how I am feeling, and expect me to tell the truth (that took me a while to get used to).  I take their behaviour to be friendly, when for them it may be neutral.

Am I being clear?  I am not talking about Poles or anyone being friendly or unfriendly.  I am talking about perceptions.  That I (unconsciously) take small-talk to mean friendliness, I can take behaviour here to be unfriendly when it fact that was not the intended act.  Others can consider me to be superficial because of my use of small-talk, because they unconsciously consider conversations about the weather or whatever to be 'banal'.
The strange thing is, Poles who have lived in GB consider us to be
(a) Friendly
(b) Unfriendly
Friendly, in that people working in shops, pubs and restaurants talk with them about subjects other than what they are buying.  Unfriendly, in that they find us to be superficial; asking questions but not wanting a long discussion or to take an interest in the other person.

Now, many times Poles ask me ‘What do you think of Polish people?’  I try to avoid giving an answer, saying ‘Like all countries, there are good things and bad things’.  I have had the experience of smiley faces looking at me expectantly ready for me to compliment Poles, faces who are then to look forlorn as I dash their self-image on the bloody rocks as I speak of things like my impressions of unfriendly service (that’s worth an article in itself).  I was talking with a girl recently who knows someone who knows many foreigners who live in Wrocław.  What are their impressions of Poles:
'Poles are closed and unfriendly‘.

I disagree with this.  The friends and family of my wife are very friendly to me.  They have been so since they first met me.  The colleagues of my wife are also friendly with me; asking me how I am and looking sad whenever I am ill or something.
That’s the point though.  My wife is a bridge to these people.  That’s why they are friendly.  I am 'in‘ the group.

Non-Poles who don’t have such a bridge though seem to spend time with other foreigners who live in Wrocław.  Now, some fellow non-Poles make friends at work.  Anyway, most of my friends when I lived in Germany were not German.  The Polish language is a big factor.  Poles are less used to foreigners so often don’t remember to speak slower when they speak Polish.  Nevertheless, my impression of Poland is that Poles can appear closed and unfriendly.  If you’re not in the group, they don’t want to know.

Part of this is social.  Poles tend to marry and have children earlier.  That means they have less time for social things.  Certainly, most of my Polish friends are people of students‘ age.  I am not sure whether Poles continue to make close friends after they get married, or even enter a long-term relationship.  The friends they have in school and university stay for life (that’s a good thing).  They however appear to be happy with the friends they have and don’t need any more.  Any new friends comes not through chance conversations in a shop, in a pub, in church or at the gym.
That’s my impression anyway.  (Cue loads of comments underneath with many stories proving me wrong!  Do so.  It is good to be wrong sometime.)  As soon as you're in the group they can be very friendly.
I strongly believe that Brits, Germans and Poles are not that different.  Some people are friendly, and some are unfriendly. The thing is, cultural and social influences effect how we demonstrate this friendliness, and how we see the friendliness of other people.  Perhaps Poles have stories about how I or others come across as unfriendly, when in my case I thought I was being friendly (my stereotypically British dark sense of humour is sometimes a factor here).

Right, that’s enough reading for you!  Tell us, do you think Poles do small-talk?  Do Poles (or people from other countries) appear friendly or unfriendly for you?  If so, how did you ‚see‘ that?

* Note for English learners: The verbs ‘to small-talk’ or ‘small-talking’ don’t exist.  I have taken poetic license in this article.


  1. Annoyingly, no matter how much I try to amend the paragraphs, some of them still jumble together. Sorry about that.

    Anyway, let me know what you think of the article :)

  2. Try to copy paste them in notepad, and then copy paste them again here ^^ Good article :)

  3. Cheers Thomas. I started using Text Edit a few months ago and now everything's more or less sound.

  4. Hello [: I just wanted to tell you that your article was quite entertaining and pretty accurate, although it seems to me that you would, perhaps, like a little more information on the topic?
    I am Poland-born, Polish-raised, and Polish-speaking, therefore I feel like I could probably give you a pretty accurate definition of what Poles are actually like (or at least from where I'm from.)
    About the small-talk: you probably consider small-talk as being the little simple sentences you exchange with passerby and forget not 5 minutes after the conversation has ended. For us, when you speak about the weather, you elaborate. You talk about the weather channel, the meteorologist who said what wrong, what the weather has done to your garden. Conversation is elaborate and you have to put actual thought and opinions into it. I think that, at least for me, a good conversation for Poles depends on how long it is and how many laughs are exchanged. For us, 20-25 minute conversations (and they can be solely about the weather) is considered small talk, except the conversations usually morph into other topics such as the kids, gossip, work, illnesses, etc, which I'm sure you've experienced before. I admit, for someone who isn't born into it it is definitely very tricky to get the hang of the Polish mindset. Basically, the point of your conversation is to make a point, present your opinion, and present it well. I find it difficult to really characterize the character of Polish people because there really are a lot of different personalities... There are the people who speak on and on about nothing at all but never give you the chance to give your two cents, there are the people who look bloody scary upon greeting them but turn out to be ridiculously nice halfway through the conversation, there are people who speak in jokes or old sayings rather than actual declarative sentences, and then there are the people who just scare the living hell out of you and don't seem to like you at all. To me it's a little embarrassing when I don't have any good input to offer in a conversation, and it makes the other person feel very uncomfortable, almost as if they're not entertaining you well enough. That's just the way things are. To me, English small-talk is rather awkward. [:
    Regarding acceptance of foreigners, you've described it particularly well. It's not that we're unwelcoming to foreigners who don't have any ties with natives, it's just that we don't care as much. They're only foreigners, nothing more nothing less. Sometimes, even, I feel uncomfortable conversing with foreigners only because Poles like to stick together. If you have Polish ties, you're deemed safe to speak with.
    I don't feel like I've explained this exactly the way I would have liked to, but perhaps I can go more into depth if you're interested at a later time. [:

  5. Thank you, Anonymous person for this excellently enlightening comment. I shall pay attention to conversations I have in the future to see if you are right.

    About a month ago from the fruit and veg shop an oldish man on his bike followed me for a few minutes talking the entire way. When he realised that I was foreign we then got into a discussion about beer, where we didn't just speak about which beers we like, but also where the breweries are and who owns them. This one anecdotal piece of evidence seems to prove your theory.

  6. Nice blog. I've come here fresh from a Guardian article about Poland and have read most of what you've posted.I'm a Brit (or should I say a white Kenyan)and have lived here for 15 years on and off, married (but separated) with a 14 year old daughter.I'm working on developing a golf course with housing just west of Warsaw.However, like you I have had a lot of contact with Polish people as I am a Presentation Skills advisor with contracts in Ministries and Media.So, it's been my job to help the client realise their full potential with work on voice etc,etc.You know the kind of thing I'm talking about, so this comment won't go into the work. However,I have found over the years that as native English speakers, we are accorded more credit by Poles in general, than say Italians or, God forbid, the French. OK, I also have been held personally responsible for Yalta and endlessly told that Squadron 303 downed the most enemy in the war, but having worked with some Ministers and so called 'movers and shakers', I am still grateful that my input into say, a discussion on PIS, is listened to and acknowledged.I sit on a think-tank here in Warsaw and after one session discussing the political fall-out from Smolensk, one guy said to me,'I enjoyed your analysis of the accident more'. I should point out that I have a PPL and was more interested in HOW they crashed than the following political noise.As one of your commentators mentioned, small talk for Poles can last a whole evening from their point of view if the topics are Dancing with Stars and Mam Talent.(though that can become a serious discussion/argument with a teenage daughter around). I also agree with the point about the group mentality. I sat in a crowded pub the other evening where several clusters of young people had their own table, conducting their own party, oblivious to the next door table which was a couple of feet away. I found it fascinating to watch...the tables were mixed... girls and boys...and most were smoking as this was an upstairs section (packed)and yet when one boy leant across to the other table to ask for a light, he was subjected to frosty gazes and a complete halt to the conversation. Then back to the business of getting slammed.There is a point to this response and it's this. I went into a new sports bar near where I live to watch Man U the other night. Halfway through a fairly good match my blood ran cold as I heard a loud Northern voice shouting,'Away the Ree-eeds' and this drunk, shaven headed 'fan' stumbled in and promptly starting berating the tv. I left at half time. Much as the Poles like us and what we have to offer, specimens like him are unwanted in Krakow, Warsaw and I suspect, Wroclaw too.

  7. Thanks Richard for your comment. Actually, regarding voice work I do know what you're on about, as I have been known to use my singing lessons as voice trainings for presentations/interviews. Anyway, regarding discussions, well with your comment and the comment from that other person things are getting clearer.