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June 28, 2015

Poland vs the United States: friends & acquaintances

This is the seventh article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

Cultural stereotypes are a dangerous and corrosive thing. They teach us that Poles are a tribe of thieving simpletons; or that Americans are arrogant, violent, and obese. And that's just the ethnicities that get off easy: the perception of blacks, Muslims, or European Jews can be far more vicious, often serving a pretext for violent hate crime.

At the same time, there is no denying that certain unique archetypes are etched into the fabric of every society. I'd also posit that when cultures come into contact with each other, there is an uncanny valley effect at play: the more similar the nations are, the easier it is for travelers to instinctively pick up the subtle variations - and to misread them as the personality quirks of the people they interact with.

For Poles who settle in the United States, the most striking contrast of this sort must be the persistence with which Americans want to engage in oddly personal small talk: you will be always greeted with "how are you?", be it by the cashier at a grocery store, by your mailman, by the park ranger met at a trail, or by the waiter serving your food at a restaurant. The social expectation is to share short pleasantries or announce a brief piece of good news. But if your answer is overly specific or focuses on a negative event, you may be given quizzical looks and the conversation will stall.

To many of my compatriots, the exchange - lacking any apparent purpose - feels uncomfortable and insincere. I try not to look at it in a cynical way: the upbeat chit-chat, repeated over and over again, can probably make your day a bit better and a tad more fun. This constrained form of communication also provides something to build on the next time you see that person, even if every individual interaction is necessarily non-committal and brief.

Another explanation for the forced positivity may have to do with the pervasive can-do spirit at the core of the American culture. The national ethos of self-determination and unconstrained social mobility flies in the face of the daily struggles of disadvantaged citizens - but it remains a fundamental part of the cultural identity of the United States. The American Dream manifests itself everywhere, from the country songs of the Midwest to the high-tech entrepreneurship of the Silicon Valley. Your friends, coworkers, neighbors, and even complete strangers are there to support you when true calamity strikes - but dwelling on everyday mishaps is almost universally seen as a weakness that one needs to overcome in order to succeed in life.

In this regard, the Polish culture is strikingly different. After hundreds of years of political repression and foreign control, Poles have developed a colorful tradition of sarcastic humor and idle lamentation. This coping mechanism functions to this day: to a Pole, being asked about your day is seen as an invitation to air all the petty grievances; you wouldn't expect a friend to smile, exclaim "I'm doing great!", and move on. Complaining about politics or work is how you build rapport with your peers. In fact, being overly upbeat or talking about professional success or accomplishment is likely to be met with suspicion or scorn. If you're a successful entrepreneur, you will probably open by complaining about your dealings with the Polish equivalent of the IRS.

In many ways, the Polish approach to chit-chat is more genuine and less rigid. At the same time, I feel that the negativity comes at a price; meeting a cranky clerk at a store sets the tone for the remainder of your day. The constant pessimism can also dampen some altruistic instincts: relatively few people in Poland get engaged in their communities or dedicate themselves to other forms of civic service. It is more accepted to just complain about the ways things are.

Interestingly, in the United States, the boundaries that govern the conversations with complete strangers also extend into the workplace. When interacting with casual acquaintances, sarcasm is seen as jarring, while petty grumbling is perceived as an off-putting and unproductive personality trait. Off-color humor, widely tolerated in Poland, is usually inappropriate in white collar environments; doubly so if it comes at the expense of women, immigrants, or other disadvantaged social groups.

Some Europeans characterize the workplace etiquette in the US as political correctness run amok. There are situations where political correctness can stifle free speech, but I don't think it's one of them; for most part, not hearing political rants or jokes about blondes or Jews just makes the world a bit better, even if the comments are uttered with no ill intent. Violating these rules will not necessarily get you in trouble, but in a culturally diverse society, it can make it harder to find new friends.

For the next article in the series, click here.


  1. Hi Michal,

    wow, I never expected that you'd publish on your blog something non-technical, relating to social life, not to the technical side of the Internet, protocols, vulnerabilities in applications and stuff like that. Yet, I'm glad to see that you resolved to share your views also on these subjects.
    Now, let me take advantage of this opportunity and let me ask you about something that has intrigued me for years. Namely: how did you manage to be so good at English? It seems like you're doing with this language exactly what you wish to do, yet, not only adhering to its rules but also being aware of its subtleties, and not only these which are commonly shown during the courses for people who want to get certificates, but also these which are normally recognized only by highly-educated native speakers having high proficiency at this language even among them. Indeed, I can't refrain from thinking that you're a native speaker of English, or at least a sort of. Will you share this secret with us? Aha, and are you as good at speaking and listening as you're at writing and reading?
    OK, to be more on-topic: I think that you're exaggerating a bit. It's commonly said that Poles are a nation who like complain, but in fact (probably most of the time) if I ask somebody "what's going on?" they'll respond with "All right" or something like that. And if people get engaged into a longer conversation, it'll also not necessarily be filled with negative things. In fact I find that people are more and more willing to share their successes and it is more and more often met with positive feedback. Personally, I don't particularly like to listen to people who complain because, as you observed, it makes you catch the negative attitude and it makes your day worse than it could be. Yet, my personal experience is that the number of people who like to talk about how bad everything's going on is rather small. Rather, I'd say, people here show at most neutral attitude and speak (or should I speak discuss) about good and bad things but I'd view it as a natural course of presenting yourself - speaking about successes and good things that happen in order to make people feel better and speaking about failures (by "failures" I don't mean serious calamities here, but, for example, failures at work) in order to take a look at what can be done to get better results the next time and what can we learn from them.
    Yet, I suppose that the tendency to complain is probably more widespread and more significant in Poland than in the USA. However, I don't receive the picture that you have painted in your post above (although I suppose that you delibaretaly exaggerated a bit for the purpose of entertainment).
    Well, and note the difference in the quality of life in these two countries (honestly, I have not made any research on it, but I suppose that people in the USA generally live better). It partially explain why Poles may be more prone to grief. So perhaps it'd be perhaps more correct to conclude that the differences of the tones of small chit-chat talks, as you put it, just reflect the differences in the economical conditions of these two and are not evidence of the general attitude to life by themselves. Yet, I'll repeat, whenever I participate in a discussion it is more likely that positive things are being talked about.

    1. For the language part: I think you're being too kind. That said... there is no secret to it, I think. I picked up the very basics in school, but it wasn't worth much. Twenty years of using the Internet to communicate with people in English-speaking countries helped a lot more. Reading fiction and technical publications made a difference, too.

      Ultimately, though.... moving to the US and having to interact with other people is what really mattered. For the first two years after the move, I felt that I couldn't express myself properly without sounding dumb; that certainly helped to motivate me; I read a couple of style manuals and made a habit of speaking more slowly but with greater care.

      For the "jak leci" / "wporzo" bit: in conversations among friends, I think you are right, there are parallels, and I should have touched on that. But it's a fairly vestigial utterance and it exists only within a fairly narrow social context. It's probably hard to appreciate how much Poles tend complain until you spend a couple years somewhere else =) You know, in the US, a cashier will ask you about your weekend plans and share theirs.

      Now, as to your theory... I think the quality of life has relatively little to do with conversational optimism; there are many notoriously cranky cultures in the developed world =)

  2. Well, could not agree more on the topic and conclusions of this post.

    Michal Kowalski : Lcamtuf is not exaggerating at all. What he tried to describe are the differences in a regular, everyday life. Many Poles do not notice them till they emigrate themselves and live in another country (like USA but not only) for months. It's not only about complaining. I think this is just the matter of one's mindset which presents itself in everything one does and talks about.

    When I lived in Poland it was considered very fashionable, wit and clever to respond to someone's lines with mean sarcasm aimed at intimidation; in USA (and not only there) it is considered wrong. Wrong not because of some frothy "political correctness" rules but because it causes harm to others.
    So simple yet very hard to convey to Poles.

  3. I'm pretty sure that my Jewish or Black friends who disagree that off-color jokes making fun of Jews or Blacks are actually ever done with "no ill intent" (even if the speaker doesn't reflect on it or it is only implicit). I always find it amazing that, for example, French coworkers I've had think it is perfectly acceptable in the workplace to make off-color jokes about women or minorities without "anyone" taken offense. It always feels like they're stuck in the 1970s era when they do so and aren't terribly sensitive to what it is like to *be* an actual woman or minority in the technology business. People that do that *never* become even friendly acquaintances at work, let alone friends because I just suspect they are (not so) closet misogynists or racists if they think that's acceptable humor with coworkers.

  4. That's actually a good reading.
    It seems quite natural that different people coming from different cultures and living in different parts of the World, have different sense of humor.
    I don't mind jokes of any kind, but again - I am Polish ;-)