Culture shock. What may surprise you in Poland – part 1.


Poland is a European country, so you may think that nothing can surprise you. Well, that’s not what we’re hearing from our international friends.

First thing first: What is the cultural shock?
It is a phenomenon when a person from a different cultural background must face a new culture. We can distinguish four stages of culture shock, which are :

  • Honeymoon (Initial excitement).
  • Culture shock (Dissatisfaction with the host culture. It is a period of psychological transition from back-home values to host-home values when failure to succeed can lead to confusion and worry).
  • Adjustment (People begin to understand the host culture and feel more in touch with themselves).
  • Adaptation (The host culture is viewed as offering both positive and negative alternatives).

So much for the theory. Now, some examples of things you may find odd/weird in Polish culture, yet is good to know them to adjust properly.

1. Starring.

Is one of the most common things foreigners notice immediately after arrival. Poles stare at you. Like really stare for even 2 minutes. Especially old ladies in public transport. You may across two types of staring look, first one from this already mentioned elderly people, is just kind of curiosity stare.

They have lived they live in a very closed, boring, grey-like country. They have never seen foreigners, or very rarely. They are still surprised that you can have blue hair or a tattoo on your body. They do stare at me also because I like to dress in a very colourful way and I have long hair. They are harmless, tho you can’t really read any emotions from their face.

What can you do? Ignore. If you can’t ignore it, because it really bothers you – smile at them. It usually works and they look away.

Unfortunately, you may also notice a more aggressive way of starring, usually from the younger generation who are mostly football hooligans. They look like every hooligan around the world, bold, in 2-size too big clothes.. you get the type.

What can you do? Ignore and go away. They will only act in groups, which means if they are alone, all that they can do is stare with a few racial epithets thrown in.

2. Polish non-emotional face.

Whenever you look you see the same not smiling, not telling anything face? Is nothing wrong with you, is just the facial impression of Poles. We don’t smile in public for no reason. Actually, we don’t show any emotions on the streets. Why?

Grumpy faces around you?

I would say that Polish people seem smiling to strangers as not honest and not a natural thing. A smile in countries such as Poland is rather proof that someone is dishonest and has evil intentions towards us. Secondly, we don’t think we have a reason to smile. We’re still dealing with many economical problems so how can you smile when the world around us is so complicated and unpredictable?

Once a foreign friend told me as kind of joke that he gets it, if his country was located between Germany and Russia, they wouldn’t smile either. 😉

3. Terrible customer service

Yep, this is one of the first thing noticed when you want to buy something or eat in the restaurant. People are so grumpy and not helpful at all. You have the feeling that you’re disturbing them and they have no intentions to help you? I would say: blame the communism, but as always is not that simple.

Poland has one of the worst customer services in Europe.

In communist Poland, there were shortages of pretty much everything – from groceries to shoes to toilet paper. Customers were at the mercy of the sales clerks during nearly every aspect of a transaction. Indeed, even the phrase “customer service” did not come into common use until the late 1990s/early 2000s, because that mentality simply did not exist.

Secondly, the whole customer service sector is terribly underpaid. You don’t work in the supermarket, clothes store, shoes store etc, because it’s your dream come true but because there was no other job. You have to deal with demanding clients every day so what you do is minimizing the effort.
It is slowly getting better all the time, so there is still hope.

Just Bear in mind, it’s not personal. That bad attitude is not just reserved for you. That shop worker probably hates everyone equally.

4. Silence required.

Do you have the impression that you’re talking too loud? Is that weird to you that in public transport no one talks?

It is common to remain silent on public places such as trams, buses, bus stops, administration buildings, health clinic… even in the queue no one is talking. Everyone seems to be just immersed in his own thoughts. It’s mostly because people use this time as “extra” just to relax a bit, read a book or we are simply too tired. I used to study while I was in the tram or bus. We’re also respecting that fact by keep silence and do not disturb them with our loud conversations.

Secondly, we also don’t have the culture of “small talk”, even we meet with friends in the bus station or something, we don’t change polite words just because it is required.

Keep the silence in the flat between 22.00-6.00

One thing connected with that is “night silence” which is regulated by law between 22.00-6.00, it requires to keep silence in your apartment to not disturb your neighbours. It means basically no parties allowed. If you disobey that rule you may be punished a fine by the police or city guard. Sometimes I get complains that students were just playing the game and neighbours called the police or “knocked” to the door or ceiling to keep them quiet. Well, if you don’t want to have problems in the buildings you live, just try to lower your voice after 22.00 and party outside.

5. Smoking

Cigarettes smoke is literally everywhere. Polish people smoke a lot and sometimes it seems like there is some unequal fight to it. According to Pentor survey, 37 percent of Polish men and 27 percent of women smoked tobacco, bringing the total smoking population to 32 percent. Nowadays there is a new trend: e-cigarettes. Poland is home to the largest number of e-cigarettes smokers and third, in terms of the stimulant’s sales in Europe preceded only by the UK and Italy.

Most of the polish workers have “cigarette break” during their workday.

Basic facts: according to the polish law from 2010 smoking is not allowed in public places such as transport, bus stations, trains, administration buildings, Universities, hospitals, hotels etc. However, somehow, the streets and outside restaurant gardens are not considered as public space.