Coming to a new country is challenging for many reasons – among others, cultural ones! You may travel a lot or Erasmus is your first trip abroad, but the encounter with another culture is always a bit stressful – which is why we have set up some guidelines to make it easier for you!
1. How to greet?
It depends on the level of acquaintanceship. If you are seeing someone for the first time, handshake is the most appropriate form of greeting the person. If you are friends with a person, you usually kiss them on the cheek* (but once, not twice!) when you see them.
*Actually – older people may want to give you three kisses instead of one – apparently, we prefer odd numbers!
If you are going to a party where you are introduced to a bunch of people – the rules aren’t so strict: just follow the vibe! Although if you are not comfortable with kissing on a chick someone you don’t know, handshake* is never out of style.
*Man can kiss lady’s hand instead of simply shaking it – old-fashioned, but also gentlemanly!
As you have probably noticed, drinking culture in Poland is quite developed. It means, among others, that at parties you may be encouraged to drink a few more shots that you would like to – even if originally, you didn’t intend so! If you are handed a glass, you should raise it and clink with others who hold drinks – and while clinking glasses with a person, you’re supposed to look them into the eyes! Right after the toast you should take a sip – don’t put your drink back on the table before you try it (back in time, such gesture would symbolize distrust!)
Toasting with a shot of vodka or a beer? Polish “cheers” is “na zdrowie” (translation: to the health!) and you can happily exclaim it! The phrase doesn’t go so well with more sophisticated drinks though, so spare it if you are going for wine or scotch.
3. How to address a person?
We are quite formal about it – if it is not your colleague or a person of your age, you shouldn’t call them by name. You shall title people Sir and Madam/Ma’am (if you don’t know the name of the person you’re addressing) or use honorifics such as Mr., Mrs., Miss, Professor etc. before their names if you know them. Stick to this rule unless someone offers you to get onto first-name terms!
4. If you are visiting…
Well, in Poland the ‘shoes rule’ isn’t fixed and it has been changing over last decades. Even nowadays it depends on many factors, such as level of acquaintanceship or nature of the occasion (if the purpose of your visit is studying session, ‘just hanging out with friends’ in their apartment or an ‘adult’ dinner party.) In case of a very casual visit*, the host can expect you to take off your shoes – so you may wanna ask him where you should leave footwear as you come in. Most likely he will tell you that you should just keep it on, but there is a chance that he doesn’t: either way, if you ask, you will avoid awkwardness and you won’t come across as inconsiderate!
*If you are going to a party or a dinner – a bottle of alcohol (wine is most universal) for the host is in a very good taste (especially if you are invited for a dinner party, such gift is highly recommended.)
5. Doors & Stairs
Some may argue that it is not an important matter or a question of savoir-vivre, but for sure it is useful to know what rules you should follow and what is expected of you!
Generally, women and elderly people should always be let through the door (additionally, seniors have the priority over young, unpregnant ladies.) It would be nice of you not only to let them through, to also open and hold the doors for them. If you meet someone in the doors and neither age, nor gender determines who should go first and who shall wait, the first person to walk through is the person who is exiting. Same goes with elevators!
When it comes to stairs – especially wider ones – always keep to the right side! When you are using escalator: if you want to stand, stand on the right side. Left side is for the people who are walking!
6. Fashionably late?
It depends on the occasion, but usually being late is rather frown upon – in that sense, Polish culture is closer to these of Northern/Western European countries.
- Never, ever be late for a business meeting! If you know something is coming up, for example you are stuck in traffic, call half an hour or at least twenty minutes earlier and apologize!
- One-on-one meeting*: if you make plans with someone – regardless if it is about grabbing a coffee or a dinner, going to a museum or to a zoo – you should always be on time! If you are to meet at particular hour – be punctual; making your friend or a colleague wait for you (especially in public) can be considered a sign of disrespect.
*If it is a date, a woman can be ‘fashionably late’ – but note that the word ‘fashionably’ disappears from this phrase after first 20 minutes of waiting.
- If, on the other hand, you are coming to somebody’s apartment – it is even advised to be 15-20 minutes later than scheduled, to give the host some extra time for preparations (something always comes up last minute when guests are about to arrive!)
- Bigger party: usually you are expected to arrive within 30-60 minutes from the start time of the party, unless you make some other arrangements with the host – if you know you won’t make it around the right time, give your friend proper heads-up! Otherwise, you may find out that everyone has been starving for two hours, waiting for you to start barbecue or a dinner, thinking that you will arrive any minute…
7. Showing emotions and affection
Although Polish people are considered very kind and friendly, they are not really used to manifesting their emotions – especially in presence of strangers. Follow their lead! Showing feelings, particularly strong ones (such as anger, frustration, or sorrow) in public may be perceived inappropriate. Also, be careful and rather temperate with expressing your affection for other people – do not invade someone’s personal space. Such gestures as slapping someone on the back, grabbing their hand or even coming too close to their face can make the other person a bit uncomfortable – Polish people are not really used to physical contact with others and it doesn’t come to us as natural as some stereotypes can suggest. We are somewhat alike our Western-European neighbours on this subject!