The Various Stages of Relationship in the Polish Language

April 29, 2009

In answer to Pinolona in the thread My Friend Is Not My Przyjaciel I wrote so much about the differences between znajomy, kolega and przyjaciel, that it called for its own post rather than a reply in a comments’ thread. I’ve been trying to find a good analogy, because the words aren’t the same species. So let’s compare them to cloths.

Przyjaciel is like one’s shirt – “close to your body”. The word jaźń means ego, self, so przy-jaźń is “near your self”, and ciało is body, flesh, so przy-ja-ciel is “the body near your self”. In Polish it’s really safer to think of friendship as a love without the sexual aspect, because it encompasses all of its elements, with the exception of eros.

Kolega is like all of the cloths of the same kind. All shirts, skirts or all trousers, or sometimes an intermediate between them, i.e. if someone fancies that kilts are either like skirts or trousers. So it can be anyone with whom one’s on equal terms in some domain. It can be friendship – the equality of minds, but it can be school, work etc. When a parent says to his 14 years old daughter “zaproś kolegów” he means that she should invite her schoolmates – people in the same age. If an 18 year old boy shows up the father might say the boy is too old to be her kolega. However, at work age doesn’t matter, so one can say koledzy z pracy, or address them all as Koleżanki i koledzy meaning Ladies and Gentlemen in reference to the narrow group. Kolega po fachu is someone doing the same kind of job, no matter where. Every translator all over the world is Pinolona’s kolega po fachu even if she doesn’t know them.

Znajomi is like all cloths, no matter their kind. When one uses znajomi in plural it’s because one’s koleżanki and koledzy rarely are from the same group. I.e. one can go to the movies with three people: one from one’s school, one from work, and one – a private friend. The first would be kolega ze szkoły, the second koleżanka z pracy, and the third just koleżanka or even przyjaciółka, but they can’t be all grouped as trousers or skirts. And there’s always a chance that one of them brings someone new, and then one wouldn’t call him kolega at all. On the other hand one would say that one went there with koledzy ze szkoły. In this case one doesn’t even need to like them all. They just happen to go to the same school.

Znajomy is also anyone one barely knows. If a lady who sells obwarzanki tells me a story, and I repeat the story to someone else, I’ll say that znajoma sprzedawczyni told me…

Literally znajomy means “someone I know”.

All three have their verbs. One can poznać, zakolegować się or zaprzyjaźnić się with someone else. There’s also zaznajomić się that is rarely used in reference to people, although would be well understood. It usually means that one learns the content of something, a book for example. One can “zaznajomić się z tematem” meaning one knows what a topic is about, without necessarily going into any detailed knowledge. The English equivalent is familiarize. Poznać kogoś means to get to know someone, without stating the level of the knowledge. Zakolegować się means to create an equal relationship on a certain level. Zaprzyjażnić się means to become friends, and must include liking the other person, not just knowing him or her.

The word znajomy doesn’t hint on one’s closeness to the person at all. It can be one’s best friend as well as someone one met only once. One’s hairdresser is one’s znajoma, as well as one’s mother’s neighbour, and someone one has known for years and been close to, and one’s lover can be one’s znajomy too. The use of the word depends not only on one’s relationship with the person who is the subject of the conversation, but also on one’s relationship with the person one is talking to. It’s a defence against “kiss and tell”, or “too much information”, because if you’re speaking to someone you barely know you don’t really want to inform them that this guy is your lover, and that girl is your life enemy. You simply conceal the relationship and the emotional part of it, because it’s an umbrella word that can mean either your pants or your overcoat.

When talking to a stranger one uses the word znajomy most often, and defines the various relationships referred to more narrowly only when one wishes to or feels safe to do that. When someone asks you where did you get that great painting from, you say that your znajomy is a painter. Now, it’s Poland, so it means that znajomi znajomych do favours to each other, but one can refuse a znajomy, while one would never refuse a przyjaciel, so you say znajomy because you don’t want to hear in the next sentence “Super! Możesz mi taki załatwić?” (Great! Can you get me one?) If you said przyjaciel there’d be no return. Znajomy gives you the buffer, so you can come up with a white lie, and say you don’t know the painter that well, and it was given to you in return for some favour or on some special occasion etc. Or even you can suggest to ask the painter how much a painting like that would cost. Something you wouldn’t propose between two przyjaciele, because money in friendship is a taboo. However, even from your kolega the person you’re talking to would expect some discount. Otherwise one can go to a gallery and just buy one. And if they ever discover they didn’t receive a discount they’ll consider it your failure. So znajomy is safer for all purposes, especially with people who assume their own relationship with you is closer than you think it is.

Yet, if the person you’re speaking of is present you’ll use kolega, because you won’t pretend you don’t know them. That of course refers only to people with whom you’re on first name terms. Pan/Pani means a deference existing, no matter one’s age, genre, or common work. You’ll always call him znajomy, and you’ll always speak of him in his presence as Pan Tadeusz, Pan Kowalski etc. Note also that we use koleżanka instead of using the first name. I.e. when I’m talking to Pani Kowalska about my friend Małgosia who stands beside us, I’ll use koleżanka instead of Małgosia or I’ll add Pani before her name, because Pani Kowalska is not on first name basis with either of us. It doesn’t matter much when one’s very young, and so one’s addressed by their first name by everyone anyway, but it begins to matter with time, when one begins their professional career and doesn’t want to be addressed in a too familiar way anymore.

Then there are the stages of narrowing the meaning. Per rule Poles won’t narrow it if they can help it. So znajomy is safer than kolega, and kolega is safer than przyjaciel. However, there are situations when one has to narrow it like the one above. And most likely a good friend will always be called koleżanka in a conversation with another friend, although she might be dubbed znajoma in a conversation with a stranger.

The word przyjaciel is used when the conversation calls for giving your motivation. I.e. you say that you’re tired, but your znajomy throws a party and you have to go. Someone asks whether you can refuse, and you say no, he’s my przyjaciel. You might never call him that in other circumstances, and he may be even unaware that you consider him your przyjaciel, but in this case this one word is enough for all of the reasons why you can’t refuse. If he’s not your przyjaciel, but you have other reasons, you’d say that he’s your good kolega and he helped you in other circumstances, and you know that he really cares that you came, so you need to go. You don’t want to disappoint him. That takes much longer, but if he’s not your przyjaciel, you need to have other motivation in order to put yourself under the torture.

The narrowing stages are:

  • znajoma sprzedawczyni is a seller you know – you know her only as a seller, but not privately
  • znajoma ze sklepu is a seller with whom you’ve had some private chats, but you still know her mostly as a seller
  • znajoma, która pracuje w sklepie is someone you know privately and happens to work in a store – your relationship can be slight, or she can be your best friend, you keep the person you’re speaking with in the dark
  • koleżanka ze studiów is someone you know from your university, but you don’t say how well, and you can always call her znajoma ze studiów as well; koleżanka suggests that she’s at least your fellow student, while znajoma could be a secretary from the rector’s office
  • koleżanka alone is someone you know privately, and you hint that she’s closer than znajoma or koleżanka z… but still leave some details unsaid
  • so koleżanka, która pracuje w sklepie can help you find some great stuff but she doesn’t need to be your dobra koleżanka
  • bardzo dobra koleżanka is practically a friend for all purposes only that you don’t use the word przyjaciółka, and usually she’d be called just koleżanka anyway, but you can say it when you want to add your motivation and still avoid the word przyjaciółka
  • and przyjaciółka is the word used rarely, either to add motivation to your choices, to tell a story about your special relationship, or to let your best friend know that you consider her your best friend, but overusing it is like bragging, and your friend may not wish to be bragged about; it’s especially tricky when your friend is of the opposite gender and your repeating that he’s your przyjaciel to others can ruin his love life designs along with your friendship

A stranger who sees you with someone else will refer to her as your koleżanka, without assuming any closer relationship. If a stranger sees you with a man and speaks of him as Twój chłopak, it means he crosses the line, unless he saw the two of you kissing. Saying przyjaciel would be only one step less, but still too much.

However, people who are in a love relationship are usually open about it, so you could call your boyfriend mój chłopak even while talking to a stranger, and certainly you should do that while talking to people you know better. He might take offence if he ever learns you did not, assuming that you downplay the relationship.

Here Polish is short, because it lacks the English word partner in reference to people living together. While the words partner or partnerka can be used in this meaning, it might be confusing, because partner can mean a partner in business, dance or sex. It’s the same as in English, but I think that English is more accustomed to the use of the word in the meaning of concubinage than Polish is. People will often say narzeczony or narzeczona (fiancé or fiancée) no matter whether they’re engaged, or even mąż or żona (husband or wife) when they’re not married.

The first can be done in a humorous way while talking to friends even when the two people don’t live together, but the latter is used only while talking to strangers. Similarly to the case with znajomy it’s a simple way to define one’s relationship without going into details. I.e. a man can say that his wife will be home to deal with everything in his name, meaning she has all of the permissions needed, without explaining whether they’re legally married or not and why. When you rent a room for a weekend in mountains and the hostess asks if the man is your husband it’s not to make sure you two are one flesh in the eyes of God, only to ask you whether she should put you in a double bed without enquiring whether you’re actually shagging the man.

The narrower words are used more often when someone wants to scorn you. “Ale z Ciebie przyjaciółka!” means that someone considers you have no right to refuse. “Ale z Ciebie koleżanka!” means that someone thinks you haven’t played fair. “To mają być przyjaciele!?” means that a third party thinks that you invested in those people much more than they deserve. “Koledzy!” said with derision, means that they’re mean pigs who tell on you to your boss.

Generally Poles aren’t very eager to familiarize too quickly, because once they do there’s no return. It’s just safer to take the longer path. One can always become one’s przyjaciel later, but one cannot revert to being his znajomy without becoming his enemy. Similarly, while talking to someone else they don’t open all of their cards at once. They wait and see how much they want to tell.

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6 Responses to “The Various Stages of Relationship in the Polish Language”

  1. basia said

    masterful…more thoughts later.

  2. pinolona said

    Thanks! Phew, that’s a very comprehensive answer. There are so many levels I was never aware of! Let’s hope the average Pole is kind enough to pretend not to notice when a foreigner accidentally stumbles into the wrong usage…

    • Sylwia said

      A wise Pole won’t assume too much, and you can never tell what an unwise one could come up with anyway, so there’s no need to be over concerned in advance.

      It is intuitional, and in many cases people do it unthinkingly, but sometimes we too wonder which word should be used in a particular situation. You’ll see Poles suspending their voice and searching for the best word while talking. Especially when one speaks about someone else in new circumstances.

  3. basia said

    Czesc Sylwiu:
    I think you should write a survival handbook for foreigners. Something along the lines of “Polish Relationships for Dummies”.

    You use language precisely and illustrate your points well with analogies and metaphors. I enjoy your writing.

    You write that so much of a Pole’s behaviour is unconscious and automatic. Sitting on the outside looking in, it feels like you are describing “court intrigues”. North American behviour is clearly not so nuanced, but we aren’t nearly as guarded either. Perhaps we are naive and that makes us more open.

    I’m planning a trip to Warsaw this summer and worry that my behaviour/cues/gestures will not be readily understood by native Poles. I admit to being a friendly person, who likely smiles WAY too much (by Polish standards anyway). I dislike the notion that I will be quickly categorized as one of those “smiley Americans”, who are superficial and fake.

    The more I read about Polish society and its interactions, the more uneasy I get. There is simply so much that I don’t understand. Understanding the language sets up the misconception that I must automatically understand the culture. And sadly, I do not. I suspect I will meet with some disappointments and misunderstandings in areas I least expect them. The devil is in the details, as they say. It will likely be the small nuances of Polish life that will hit me broadside (and unprepared). I last visited Poland in the mid-80s, and I expected it to be very different. I expected differences in the mentality and behaviours of people, and so I wasn’t surprised. This time, I am probably looking for more common ground, and I’m coming to realize that there will be less than I expect. We’re still different.

    I think I need to think of my visit as a trip to England, (where the commonality of language is obvious) so I don’t fall into the trap of believeing I actually understand the culture because I understand the language.

    Thanks very much for the comprehensive discussion on a subject I find very interesting

    • Sylwia said

      LOL Perhaps I’ll write something like that one day!

      I don’t think you should stress yourself over the nuances though. I make blunders all my life, both in English and Polish. It’s unavoidable. But that’s how one learns. I made the mistake of becoming too friendly with people, or with addressing someone per Pan when I was with him on the first names terms already. It happens.

      It’s a good idea not to make any preconceptions though. Cultures look so similar, and yet they differ a lot. That’s why IMHO everyone should learn at least one foreign language. It really opens one’s eyes. Otherwise we assume that everyone is the same.

      Ultimately though, behind every form of communication, there is the need of mutual understanding and acceptance. Everyone worries that they might be misunderstood and so rejected. People with whom you’ll communicate will have exactly the same anxieties. They too will want you to see that they’re great, good hosts et al. Assuming good will helps in all kinds of interactions.

      Moreover, when people make blunders they’re the least likely to suspect them, otherwise they wouldn’t make them. It’d never come to my mind that Poles are rude if I haven’t read about it on Polandian. If we knew we are we wouldn’t be. As simple as that. Just as we have no idea we don’t smile enough. Such things only occur when there’s a clash of two cultures.

      Knowing the differences helps in interactions, but it doesn’t mean one should attempt to change. I wouldn’t appear like a Brit to anyone, no matter how much I tried. If you try to remember not to smile you’ll just feel tensed, not more Polish. :D

      And, you know, even though people try to be precise while speaking, others won’t remember 90% of what was said.

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