Thursday, August 26, 2010

Laura Klos Sokol, Shortcuts to Poland

Laura Klos Sokol, Shortcuts to Poland, 2nd Edition, International Publishing Services Sp. z o.o., Warszawa, 2005.

Do you normally shake hands with (or kiss) everyone rather than wave hello or good-bye to the group? 3 points for yes; 0 for no. (9)

In Polish culture, … rudimentary greetings usually involve a couple of dzien dobry’s (hello’s) and head-noddings in the hallway. Sometimes I throw in a pan (sir) or pani (madam) to be extra polite. In response to “co slychac” (what’s new?) Poles (and their European neighbors) expect a meatier exchange… The God-Awful Truth is more socially acceptable in the initial stages of conversation with Poles than with Americans. Reviewing the imperfections of life can even be a sign of affection. (13)

Recently, some Poles complained to me about this barrage of questions they get from Americans. I was dumb-founded. Isn’t it flattering and gracious when someone asks you all about yourself? (15) … “Americans ask a lot of questions,” warns the culture section of a handbook written by Poles for Poles going to the States to teach and study. “Some of these questions may seem uninformed or elementary. You may be asked very personal questions by someone you have just met.” But don’t take offense, the handbook advises, “no impertinence is intended.” In other words, when Americans confound you with intrusive nosiness, they’re just trying to be nice and friendly. (16)

The number one question asked by Americans to new acquaintances—“What do you do?”—might sound a little odd to Poles if it comes out of nowhere. For a long time, work was not considered a source of self-satisfaction in Poland and therefore no guarantee of fruitful conversation. … The key is not to rely heavily on questions to jump-start a conversation. … I used to ask Poles a lot of personal questions and then wonder why they didn’t reciprocate. Sometimes, I felt a little hurt… If they do want to ask something personal, they sometimes say, “Sorry, can I ask you a personal question?” I say yes of course, bracing myself for an inquiry about my salary, pants size or sex life and they just want to know how I learned my faulty Polish or how long I’ve been in Poland. (16-17)

Unlike Americans, Poles don’t try to “get to know” someone within the first contact. Over a period of time, they observe you, exchange opinions with you, listen to your stories, problems, jokes and so forth before exchanging personal data. (17)

In American Cultural Patterns, authors Edward C. Stewart and Milton J. Bennett say that Americans “rarely form deep and lasting friendships in which friends become mutually dependent on each other.” Compared to other cultures, there’s an “American reluctance to become deeply involved with other persons.” The authors add that while members of other cultures might turn to friends for help and comfort, Americans trot down to the shrink’s office rather than burdening friends with troubles. An overstatement, in my opinion, but there’s no denying that the therapy business flourishes in the U.S. … It seems that some Poles are mystified or disappointed by friendships with Americans. [18] A Polish friend who seemed to drop off the face of the earth called recently. “I’m being American. I have no time,” she sighed. Another Pole complained that he was working so much that he was too busy to see his friends, “Like an American,” he said. (19)

What might be misleading is that many Americans are perceived as friendly, outgoing and open but this doesn’t mean that they are committed. Maybe that’s what’s disappointing to Poles. … Americans are more used to casual low-maintenance friendships. All this fits the value Americans place on self-reliance and independence. (19)

This American approach contributes to our reputation as a breezy and casual tribe of people. … Americans come off as informal because we don’t hesitate or wait to do what we perceive as mundane things. [20] … All this sounds unremarkable except that it’s the opposite of how many Poles behave. They’ll often hesitate or simply wait to be invited before doing such “small” things. And because of this, Americans might perceive them as formal, stiff or shy. / A Polish woman who is used to hosting Poles as well as foreigners describes Polish habits this way: “You have to tell Poles what to do. They wait for invitations and expect to be encouraged.” For example, she had some people over for a spontaneous lunch: “They came in, I had to say, ‘Put your coats here, go to the big room over there and sit down.’ I served them sandwiches and went back to the kitchen. Then I had to tell them to start eating… (20-21)

Another behavior that fuels the American easy breezy reputation is how they strike up conversations with strangers. … Americans’ body language (like leaning or draping extremities on furniture), smiling and using first names right off the bat rounds out the picture of ease. Again all of that contrasts with typical Polish behavior: People sit up straight, they smile less, and in some cases, still use titles. … In American culture, no higher compliment can be paid to an important person that the statement, ‘He’s a regular guy—real down to earth.’ That is, we want to treat everyone—and be treated—the same. … However, hierarchical behavior is starting to disappear among the younger generation of Poles. (21-22)

When American spot an argument down the road, they usually grab the conversational steering wheel and veer off to a safer topic. Poles, however, often don’t mind a head-on collision of opinions. … Americans seek harmony in conversation. There are even certain recognizable taboo topics—politics, religion and sex—that you don’t’ bring up unless you feel confident that others think similarly. [23] A text-book for learners of American English says: “Notice that you need to be very polite when disagreeing with an American—even someone you know quite well.” (23-24)

A Polish acquaintance and I were talking about Prague. I explained that while I enjoyed the architecture, I didn’t like the atmosphere because of too many tourists. It was better to live in Warsaw. “Well, you’re wrong, but that’s your opinion,” she said. I felt as if I had been slapped. By Polish standards, I was overreacting. (24)

All I wanted to do was thank my Polish hosts for their hospitality, hop in a taxi and go home. … However, my friends wanted to leave their cozy apartment on a freezing cold night to drive me home. I insisted on calling a cab and an argument ensued. I was apparently coming off as an obnoxiously independent American. This was not the first time I have been scolded by Poles for not requesting or refusing help. But the fact is Americans often hesitate before asking or accepting favors from other people. These are uncomfortable and face-threatening acts. (26)

This is not the case with Poles. Need is regarded as normal, so favors are easily exchanged. And it’s natural (and sometimes necessary) to depend on friends for rides, errands, babysitting, shopping, and telephone use. [i.e. because not everyone has a phone or car]. [27]… The notion of imposition is communicated between Poles when people don’t know each other well or when there’s a difference in status. (27)

Invitations from Poles to their homes are as serious as tax notices; if you don’t respond appropriately, be prepared to pay a heavy price. (29) … But the funny things is if you send out a written R.S.V.P. for more formal affairs in Poland, you can’t count on a response. Oral invitations and responses carry more weight.

Americans appear vague and light-hearted about extending invitations. Poles, among many other nationalities, complain bitterly about the apparent insincerity of the American suggestion “We should get together sometime”. (29)

I asked a Pole to explain how to turn down an invitation graciously. “You don’t, there’s no way,” she sighed. “This is the problem.” Apparently, the excuse has to be specific and air-tight. (29)

In the States, there’s a little known [followed] rule about an unoccupied hand at the table: it should not rest on the table but on your lap. But careful! In Poland, both hands from the wrists up should be kept above the table at all times. Another difference: Americans eat with the fork in the right hand but will pass it to the left hand in order to cut with a knife in the right. …Continental style means fork in the left hand, tines usually face down, and pushing food onto the fork with the knife in the right. (32)

Americans don’t mind serving themselves. … Poles, by contrast, will always serve others (women and guests first) or wait to be served. That means that, even under casual circumstances, Americans could wind up looking niekulturalny [without culture] if they innocently refill their own glass. (32)

Utensil codes… Lay your knife and fork parallel on the side of your plate to show you have finished… But if you want to continue eating, make an X by crossing the knife and fork on your plate. (33)

Opening the fridge or dumping your own dirty dishes in the sink in a Polish home could be an affront to hosting talents, especially for the older generation. (34)

Stuffing yourself silly is proper behavior. … When you’ve reached your limit, it takes a series of firm dziekuje’s (two minimum) to stop the process. The older and more traditional the host, the more assertive the hospitality.(34)

“No thanks” can be confusing when hosting a Polish guest, or when being hosted by a Pole. When you say “no thanks” it might be interpreted as the polite, indirect way of saying “yes please”; when they say “no thanks”, and you take the food off the table, Poles can become dismayed, because they want more.

One night my husband and I hosted a Polish couple who stayed and stayed. If they were Americans, I would have had no problem saying, “Well, it’s three in the morning, I guess we should call it a night.” This would be unforgivably rude by Polish standards. Guests are not supposed to leave, so any inclination towards the door should elicit protests… When you [as a guest] actually make it to the door, you gush gratitude. Count on spending more time at the threshold for conversation. (36)

The unspoken rule among Americans is that you never tell or even hint to other parents how to raise their children. … In Poland, parents treat children like public property, even in the cosmopolitan city of Warsaw. The most glaring example is how strangers (mainly grandma types) on the street will comment on child-care, most often concerning the child’s dress. Even in mild fall weather, strangers have told me that my daughter needs a hat, gloves, a scarf, a warmer coat, and in the summer, a sunhat. (40)

Strangers in Poland also go out of their way to make life easier for kids and parents. … Strangers usher child-encumbered parents to the front of the line, especially if the child is a newborn. (41)

Poles love to give advice. … for a long time daily life resembled a jigsaw puzzle in which fitting the pieces together was not always a transparent process. During the Communist times, people needed information on how to get through the maze of bureaucracy, and where and how to buy necessities. …Americans, on the other hand, are a little touchy about giving and taking advice. To some, unsolicited advice sounds like “Obviously, you don’t know what to do and I know better”—a big no-no in a culture in which autonomy and a mind-your-own-business approach are highly valued. (44-5)

A Polish friend told me that my Polish had improved, so I said thank you. “Oh, that wasn’t a compliment,” he corrected me, “It’s just an observation.” … Members of other cultures are sometimes surprised at how often Americans give compliments. … one linguist concluded that Americans use compliments for other things beside establishing solidarity. A compliment may be used to express gratitude (“That was a great dinner”) or to soften criticism (“You did a great job except…”). Sometimes we even use laudatory statements to open up conversations (“I enjoyed your talk”, or “Nice car”). … Compliments in Polish are often treated with suspicion. So a Pole might deny that a given comment was a compliment, to clarify that it’s not false flattery, as if compliments are naturally on shaky ground. (50-51)

Brief silences during conversation do not seem to pose as great a threat to Poles. (52)

Americans who teach in Poland are often frustrated by blatant cheating in the classroom. [57] …In other words, it’s not dishonest to cheat, it’s pragmatic. You’ll find the same attitude in other European countries. Kind of like paying taxes in some places: You’re a fool if you don’t cheat. / One Polish educator explains it this way: “The school system is part of the government and there’s nothing morally wrong with cheating the government.” Someone who refuses to cheat might be considered an outsider or a goody two-shoes. …And then there’s the attitude that if you can make a good cheat sheet then you know the material. You deserve to pass. … An American computer instructor confiscated the students’ cheat sheets during ht exam. She says they had an awwww-c’mon attitude, as if she were unreasonable and uncooperative. (58)

I was wearing a new wool sweater and a Polish friend asked if I had bought it in the States. Yes. “How much did you pay?” she asked immediately. … Prices hold a special fascination because money and materialism have relatively new importance in Poland. In the Communist days, everything cost the same, no matter where you bought it. … Compared to Poles, Americans have an underlying belief that in social situations, the mention of money is vulgar. (59)

When it comes to salaries, some Poles have a stereotype that Americans talk openly about their big fat paychecks. Not true—and in fact, many Americans might be surprised by Poles’ frank conversations about earnings. (60)

Employees at a major British airport complained that the Indian food servers in the staff cafeteria were “surly and uncooperative,” and not polite like the British servers. Linguist John Gumperez identified intonation as the culprit. The Indians used a falling intonation when offering food, so an offer of gravy came out as a statement: “Gravy.” As if to say, “This is gravy, take it or leave it.” British servers used a rising intonation, “Gravy?” which sounds like a polite offer in English. /
Polish intonation relies on a smaller range of intonation than American English so Americans might find Poles strangely cool or unenthusiastic at times. After returning from a tour in Canada, an actress friend described her experience there as swietnie (wonderful) with falling intonation. …My American ear just expected more rising and falling intonation to relay enthusiasm. / While Poles enjoy Americans’ zeal, sometimes the American contours of intonations strike them as exaggerated or superficial. … One Pole imitated American intonation (which sounded like squealing) and said, “Americans react like children. They sound infantile, but I like that.” (65)

When you’re squeezing by folks to get to your seat in the theater, think about where your backside is facing. Rear ends should face the stage or screen, not the person’s face. (73)

A newcomer to Poland might be taken aback by the lack of space between strangers, especially while waiting in line. … If you leave your two feet of American Stranger Space, someone might inquire, “are you in line?”, a polite way of asking , “what’s all this empty space doing here?”… Some Americans are unnerved by the Polish casual conversation zone, which seems to be about two to four inches smaller than the American one… (74)

In one study of café dwellers, Puerto Ricans touched each other an average of 180 times an hour, Parisians 110 times, and in London, no times at all. Experts say Americans are less inclined to express warmth through physical contact—we nudge, slap backs, give playful punches or squeeze an arm, but generally the contact is fleeting. When Poles really like you, you’ll be rubbed, stroked and cooed over. In the U.S. that kind of stuff is tricky between the sexes and can land you in court. (75)

Remember the American stereotype with the checkered jacket, mismatched pants and cigar in his mouth? He died. But he has a replacement: the American schlepping around in a sweatshirt and sneakers with no socks. … Poles who visit the States sometimes comment on what bad dressers Americans are—jeans, old t-shirts, droopy jackets and baggy pants. …But Americans know how to dress—for comfort. They’ll even pay a premium for clothes that are already worn-in and pre-washed. [76] In Poland, someone walking around in a broken-in pair of jeans and a sweatshirt looks like a student, a plumber, or an American. In the U.S., it could be anybody on a day off.

However, unlike in the U.S., in Poland there seems to be less of a corporate uniform. Office garb varies widely, depending, of course, on where you look. On the whole, professional dress is simply less conservative, and more flashy, than what Americans expect. (77)

Americans like to be get-to-the-point type of people when doing business. … We like to do business first and only then establish relationships. For much of the rest of the world, including Poland, it has traditionally be the other way round. (86)

The Polish director of a medium-sized clothing manufacturer and retail business says, “Polish people have guilty consciences. Sometimes I just want to discuss why something wasn’t done, but employees feel accused and get defensive. This is very Polish.” …From early education onward, errors are viewed as something to avoid (as opposed to part of the learning process.) Mistakes are reflections of your own inadequacies. … Dodging blame is a cultural remnant of Communist bureaucracy. Blame was passed from department to department, and it was never anybody’s fault. Some shifty-eyed manager was always above you, telling you exactly what to do. If some thing went truly wrong, it meant that you didn’t follow directions correctly. A black mark went on your record, or at least the incident wasn’t easily forgotten—situations to avoid. In some cases, another Pole says, people would never admit to blunders since “mistakes could cost people their jobs.” (93)

Tooting your own horn is firmly grounded in the American mentality—we’ve been conditioned to “sell ourselves” and behave confidently even when we’re not. That’s partially why Europeans consider Americans arrogant. [95] …traditional Polish thinking was that no one person should be better than the next. …Only in the last few years have Poles been living with the necessity of the self-sell. (95-6)

Asking people their age in Poland is especially tricky. Age reveals far more personal information about Poles than Americans. In Poland, age places people in distinct boxes of development and responsibility. In other words, social expectations are pretty clear—and that’s typical of traditional societies. There isn’t the idea of ‘you’re as young as you feel’ in Poland. It’s more like, ‘you’re as old as everyone else your age.’ (100)

To wish someone good luck, hold up your fist with your thumb concealed within. (I’m holding my thumbs for you.) This is the equivalent of crossing your fingers. (108)

When you want to show that something or someone is loony, tap the middle of your forehead with your index finger. (108)

To indicate that someone is drunk, make a chopping motion with your hand to the side of your neck. To communicate drinking in general, lean your head back, make an “O” with your mouth, and flick your fingers several times against the area under your chin. If you do it correctly, it will produce a mamrotek: the glug-glug sound made when you pour vodka out of a freshly opened bottle. (109)

To relay “I don’t believe a word you’re saying,” take a forefinger and tug down the lower eyelid. (110)

A gesture to indicate that someone can go shove something in an illicit place is a wiggly snaking motion with the hand, palm perpendicular to the floor. (110)

The well-know but less vulgar European equivalent of holding up the middle finger is: make a fist, grab the inside of the elbow with the hand, fling the fist upward, and stop it suddenly at about face level. This is known as the gest Kozakiewicza, named after the Polish Olympic pole-vaulter who was greeted with aggressive boos and hisses by the Russians at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. After making the jump that earned him a gold medal, he landed, turned to the Russian spectators, and made this rude gesture. On live tv. (110)

This vulgar one ranks high on the Scale of Obscene Insults and is for men only: Gesture as if you are shading your privates from the sun with your hand at an angle, palm down. Prepare for a fist fight if you use it on a Pole. (110)

Poles fanatically avoid bodily contact with any type of cold temperatures to stave off illness (it’s “temperature phobia,” says an American). If you walk around your house without slippers, you’re obviously crazy. Don’t cram drinks with ice like the wacko Americans—cold drinks cause sore throats or make them worse, they say. Eating ice cream with a sore throat reveals suicidal tendencies. And, you must keep your neck covered with a scarf AT ALL TIMES. Poles of all ages will tell you to wear a scarf to bed. And don’t forget your hat to protect your ears from the evil, evil wind. (112)

In Poland the big no-no flowers are chrysanthemums and lilies, appropriate only for funerals. So don’t know up for a dinner implying that the outing is social death. Another blooming loser is the carnation because of its association with official functions of unpleasant times past. Yes, for many, it’s the Communist flower. (118)

To some extent, Poles enjoy the upbeat American. But ask a Pole to imitate American behavior and chances are the result will include a wide smile, an elongated “Wooooooow!” and “Everything is fine!” with a thumbs-up. … I think I know where it comes from. The underlying belief is you create your own happiness—a carryover of the Protestant work ethic. (137)


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