business,  culture,  Poland

Poland – a very short introduction – part 2, today

When you deal with the Polish it is impossible not to talk about history at some point. We finished the previous post on partitions. They lasted 123 years and they changed Polish culture completely. When Poland became independent, obviously it was not Poland of 1795. And some other countries became independent as well. It includes Lithuania, and Vilnius, the old Lithuanian capital where almost everyone spoke Polish (which was the language of education and art, not necessarily of nationality) happen to become a capital of newly independent state. That enraged Polish to the point that we decided to stand up and win it back. To make it even more complicated, the Polish elite happen to come from Lithuania, they only spoke Polish and even the national Polish epic poem “Pan Tadeusz” written by Adam Mickiewicz who is considered one of the most important European poets, starts with “O, Lithuania, my fatherland…”, which clearly shows that the concept of nationality has not been as straightforward, as people may think. You can guess, the new Union of Lublin is not very likely to happen any time soon.

Polish before and after WWII

Anyway, newly emerged Poland was still a very diverse country. The 1/3 of population consisted of minorities – about 15% Ukrainians, more than 10% Jewish, Belarussians, Germans, etc.) and only a bit more than a half was Roman Catholic (apart from Jewish, there was a quarter of Eastern Catholics and Orthodox, as well as lots of Protestants too). Religious and linguistic divisions did not necessarily agree with personal identities. Why would they, nationalism was a relatively new concept at the time, not worshipped by many. Especially those living in less urbanised parts or at the frontier, were sometimes a bit of this and a tad of that. In the area of Polesie (at the map on the left it is more or less where Brześć is (currently it is Polish, Belarussian and Ukrainian border) people self – identified as “tutejsi” which literally means “from here”. In the 1931 Census they even called their mother tongue as “from here”. And it’s not even like it was a very homogenous group either.

Those living in a newly independent state did their best to run it successfully despite the fact that they had to glue 3 different states in one. The partitions were obviously still there. Name something, I can guarantee you there were three distinct ways of doing it. And three not so similar citizens’ personalities. too. When I train on Polish culture, I always say that there are actually 3 different countries –

  • – I am from the post-Russian partition, I arrive 15 minutes late and it is never an issue;
  • – my husband is post–Austrian, he’s also 15 minutes late and he feels guilty about it;
  • – post–Prussian Poles are usually 15 minutes ahead of the schedule.

And the differences are still visible in 2023 – railway/road infrastructure, rural/urban proportions, the political parties people vote for, their salary, etc. You can imagine how complicated it was to unify everyone under the same legal system back then, having only 20 years of peace. On top of all the successes of the new old Republic, the WWII happened. Polish were invaded from the West, by the Germans, and 2 weeks later, from the East, by the Russians. As the aftermath of an almost 6 years war, Polish borders shifted few hundred kilometres to the West. Stalin was very giving, he “gifted” what was previously not his and took what was ours instead (we have a saying about Soviet “generosity” – they took something from us, but we always have to give them something else in exchange – you got the picture).

The result was another new state – PRL, country of 95% Polish Roman Catholics who had to move to the areas marked in red on the map above, and replace those who use to live there before, the Germans. This shift created another, the fourth, category of Poles – the settlers/pioneers. People with no past, focused on future. Probably the best team players in the whole country, because they’ve learnt that they cannot rely only on themselves, there was simply always too much to do.

Who are the Polish

Even though I mentioned that the partitions are still visible among the Polish, it is possible to group some characteristics which are common for my compatriots. There are these which make us all happy of being who we are, and those which we would wholeheartedly disagree with.

Poles, in general, are very hospitable people. Visiting others without notice at their homes is not unusual and normally the guest will be offered something to eat, if it’s a mealtime, or at least tea or coffee with something sweet. If there wouldn’t be any, the hosts would be stressed that they could not provide what is expected, so bringing something is always appreciated. Obviously, life is much busier than it used to be, so it’s always better to announce your arrival to make sure that it would not interfere with your friends’ plans.

We are all proud of our values which intertwine family and faith. Religious celebrations are perfect for everyone to meet and passing time together. Although less and less people attend Sunday service on a regular basis, we would still consider ourselves to be devoted Catholics, mostly. Traditional ways of spending Christmas (well, Christmas Eve), Easter or All Saints’ Day are the only accepted ways. Regardless of changing attitude towards the Church, one should never criticise the deceased pope John Paul II, NEVER. It’s better to leave it to the Polish. Because family is the most important, nepotism is not seen as negative as it should. On the other hand, if you are able to convince Pole to be part of their family, you have support for life.

Our heroes were usually of a fallen kind, hence the bravado which should not be mistaken for bravery, though we will tell you differently. We do not plan ahead, because the history taught us that the circumstances change no matter what, anyway. And since the authorities always want to steal/cheat/lie to us, we prefer “creative” solutions. Let’s just say that we are flexible and adaptable. It was the only way to survive.

To make friends with us, you should always praise our history. Have I already mentioned that we are obsessed with it? A “carrot-and-stick” approach do not work with us. We are too rebellious, and we will oppose things which are beneficial for us if we feel they come from a wrong attitude and others will benefit even more. The dog in the manger? Yes, that’s us! Oh, and if you’d ever learn few Polish words and tell everyone that it’s all you could do, because our language is the most complicated in the world, we will love you till death do us part!

I would like to finish this part with a comparison by Hofstede. His model has its weak points, but I like using it because in a very clear way shows the gaps between different national cultures and may be helpful to adjust own’s behaviour when going to a different country. If you follow the link, you will learn more about the model and country comparison tool. Here I just want to focus on 3 dimensions only and since my clients and readers of this blog are mostly US American and Brits I compared my country with these two.


The first dimension is Power Distance. Poland, unlike USA and the UK, is a society with visible hierarchy. If you are the boss, it means that no one will tell you directly what they think. Don’t fraternise with your subordinates, they won’t like it and they would think you are weak. On the other hand, we are not as individualistic society as the other two mentioned. We know how to and we often do work as a team, that’s what the Individualism dimensions shows. Not to the extent of the Far East cultures, but much more than you’d expect. However, the Uncertainty Avoidance Index is extremely high. We do not like change, it is usually perceived as bad and unwanted; to make sure we’re ok we create rules, and we love them. The British common sense? Forget about it!

The model is much more complicated than these few sentences you have just read; I know that it seems almost contradictory to other things I mentioned. You can either follow the link to read and explore subject on your own or ask to schedule a session with me to learn how to work and live among the Polish. Remember, this post is not supposed to replace learning session.

Good luck with your Polish adventure! Oh, and do not thank me, please. In our culture it would jinx everything and null the wishes. Instead, you can always say: I do not thank you! Everyone will understand.

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