My Friend Is Not My Przyjaciel

March 14, 2009

Last summer my American friend visited me in Poland. Eight months later I learnt that there occurred a misunderstanding between us that quite spoilt both her fun and her trust in me.

We sat in a small restaurant in Białowieża when I translated from Polish my short conversation with a waitress:

– What will you have?

– Pancakes for me and a salad for my colleague.

ingres_d_henrietteharveyandelizabetMy friend asked why I didn’t call her “my friend”, to which I began explaining the difference between przyjaciółka and koleżanka in the Polish language, and as it appeared just now I quite failed in it.

Thankfully I found this post at Polish Blog that quite proved my innocence, but I could lose a friend over a language incompatibility.

Poles almost never use the words przyjaciel or przyjaciółka, but all dictionaries translate them as friend – a word used in English so liberally it almost means nothing.

There are only three people I’d call my przyjaciele in an intuitive way: a girl whom I’ve known from sandbox (longer than my conscious memory ranges in fact), a classmate from my primary school and a girl who’s a year older but also from my primary school. All three are closer to me than 99% of the people I’m related to.

There was one more person but he got scratched from the list some ten years ago.

Then there are the people I met in lyceum out of whom two might be called my przyjaciele at one point, but one got scratched from the list some ten years ago as well. So the overall list consists in 4 names.

When in my 20s I met another boy who might be called my friend, but since I’ll never have an opportunity to go with him through so much as with the others I apply the word much more carefully.

And then there is my American friend with whom I’m very close, and we’ve been talking on IM daily for several years now, and yet I called her koleżanka.

In truth, due to our frequent communication, for several years I’ve been closer with my American friend than the remaining five Poles, but a Pole needs several years to even apply the word przyjaciel. When I go to cinema with my przyjaciółka and her boyfriend, I’ll say that I went there with znajomi (acquaintances) even though I’ve known her boyfriend for years and I like him a lot. We just don’t use the word so easily.

Moreover, people don’t usually say that someone is their przyjaciel while talking to strangers, so even if I sat in the Białowieża restaurant with my childhood przyjaciele I’d still use the word koledzy. Przyjaźń is an intimate relationship, even though platonic, so boasting of it to strangers is like boasting of sex.

There are also other aspects. For a man to call a girl his przyjaciółka implies that there’s more than just friendship between them, and although he can do that to emphasise the existance of a deep friendship, most likely he’d have to add tylko przyjaciólka – nothing more than a friend, or people would assume there’s a sexual relationship as well. Some men call their female friends by the masculine przyjaciel in order to avoid the confusion.

My American friend took it to heart, as apparently it’s offensive not to be called a friend by someone who’s close to you. I made an impression of a person who wants to keep her at a distance. At the same time, the majority of Poles will thank you for not calling them your przyjaciele. It just comes with such a huge responsibility people don’t want the burden apart from very few exceptions. It’s more than a loan, it’s like usury. You get a lot of dough, but you may be sure you’ll never be able to pay back.

Why then dictionaries translate such a loaded word into English as something used so commonly as “friend”? If I didn’t learn the word as such back in my teen years I’d never make the blunder. It should be said that the word doesn’t have an English equivalent, while friend should be translated as kolega/koleżanka which it really is. In English one can’t call too many people one’s friends, in Polish one can’t call przyjaciel too few of them.

And don’t even get Poles started on the word ‘love’!


18 Responses to “My Friend Is Not My Przyjaciel”

  1. basia said

    Hi Sylwia:
    Followed you over here from Pino’s blog. I felt a little awkward about continuing our conversation on her blog (etiquette issues). Anyway you raised some interesting points about diminutives that I wanted to chat further about. As well, the topic of przyjaciel/friend is also a subject of considerable interest to me. Personally, I find the boundaries of “friendship/acquaintance” to be rather difficult to navigate in Polish relationships. Oh yeah, “relationship” is also a very encompassing word in English that is very difficult to use in Polish. Seems like the best thing for a non-Pole to do is just call everyone pan/pani unless you know you are named in their will. 🙂
    Back to your example, of your American friend becoming upset with you regarding your “classification” of your friendship. I can understand why she would feel wounded. Friendships in North America run the gamut of very deep, to casual acquaintances just like anywhere else. We intuitively know the level of importance and intimacy each person occupies. Although we may use the phrase “best friend”, its usuage begins to fade as we grow older. Maybe because “best friend” can feel exclusionary to all other close friends. Your friend appears to have stumbled into a situation which required you to tell her she doesn’t qualify for your most intimate level of friendship (przyjaciolka). It would most certainly hurt to be left outside the gates of that prestigious club. No amount of explaining would likely suffice to take the sting out of “you aren’t good enough or aren’t important enough”. Sorry to hear something like that had to happen. An unintended consequence of cultural differences it seems. How sad.

  2. Sylwia said

    Welcome, Basia!

    Seems like the best thing for a non-Pole to do is just call everyone pan/pani unless you know you are named in their will.

    Be careful or they might yet change their mind! 😀

    You’re right of course that it’s very puzzling. Both ways too, because Poles approach the same problems in the reverse direction.

    What happened here is 1.) I made the basic mistake of using the literal translation instead of contextual. Something I wouldn’t do in writing, having time to think of the best word to express my meaning. 2.) My friend doesn’t speak any other language than English, and that makes understanding very different concepts surrounding obvious cultural references difficult.

    To a Pole it’s tricky to learn that everyone is your friend, or that one can say both “I love you” and “I love your shoes”, but as we see it done very often we get accustomed to it. Although I still can’t imagine saying to someone “I love you” with the same strength as “Kocham Cię”. Still, learning another language teaches one a kind of tolerance for cultural differences. It opens a new world of possibilities. Everything seems similar, and yet so different.

    As you said, most likely Poles and Northern Americans make friends in the same manner. Those are language limitations that make us see them differently. The truth is that she IS my friend as in “one of the closest circle of my friends”. It was my inability to use the word in Polish in that particular situation (while talking to a stranger) that played a role.

    The word “friend” in English is used in advance, and then the friendship deepens. The Polish “przyjaciel” is used afterwards, like “husband” or “wife”. First you need to meet the person, then you have to date, then you have to fall in love, then get engaged, then marry, and only then you can call someone your husband. It doesn’t mean that the person was less dear to you before the actual wedding, only that you apply the word only after going all the way and making the factual commitment.

    As I’m thinking about it now, with two of those three oldest friends of mine I never actually used the word “przyjaciel”.

    Yet, the reversed problem is that since the word “friend” in English is used so early Poles won’t be able to recognise when the relationship deepens. We use different words where you use different undertones. It’s easier to tell white from black than the shades of grey.

    The pan/pani issue is as interesting. I’ll write another post about it to show a Polish perspective. Incidentally it’s not something I have a problem with in English. Only when speaking Polish it’s difficult to call everyone per “Ty”.

    I’ve been thinking more about the diminutives. One important thing is of course that they change throughout your life. Until late in my teen years no friends of mine called me by my given name. Few people didn’t have a nickname. People, other than your family or adults, begin using your Christian name in your twenties, and then your personality matters. I.e. if you take the characters from Pride and Prejudice Jane would be called Jasia, because of her fragility, but Lizzy would be always Elka, and only Darcy would call her Ela or Elżbieta.

    The other way around everyone would call Darcy “Darcy” and only Lizzy would call him “William”. Male nicknames last longer, especially that men are more often called by their surnames.

  3. basia said

    Czesc Sylwiu:
    Ok, you’re scaring me here. I happen to love “Pride & Prejudice”, so your choice of example is extremely powerful for me. I want to continue the dialogue…I generally have much to say (and ask), it’s just a little late presently, so I’ll continue this later.

  4. mochafueled said

    Great cultural insight, thanks for sharing. In this day and age where you can have up to 600 “friends” on facebook or other social sites the word “friend” has lost some of it’s strength I think. I wish there was a word besides acquaintance to use for people I know but I am not close with… acquaintance is just a hard word to use in conversation. I know I try and limit who I really call friend but social to not call someone you know friend can be very awkward too especially when doing introductions. in introductions (in a social setting) Friend applies to that person I have met only once before to a person I have know for years… there is no word in English for new friend or old friend unless you say just that; this is my new friend John or dear friend Amy… but you get the point.

    One other interesting word play I have learned in my travels here in Africa is the privacy of the nick-name. In Africa (most recently Ethiopia but now South Africa) a persons mick name is very private and only shared with the closet of people. Knowing a persons special name is considered a honor as in many cases the name comes from youth and has something to do with the persons imperfections. Like farting a lot, being short or squinting eyes. So when I have asked hey do you have a nick name I get crazy looks and told don’t ask is impolite… me I just want a simpler name.

    Thanks for the thoughts on friendship, very interesting.

    • Sylwia said

      Thanks, Mocha! Well, I’m afraid that on the Polish facebook they might be called “przyjaciele” as well, but I don’t think it’ll influence our practice.

      We use both “koledzy” and “znajomi” for the English “friends” that aren’t the closest ones, however, we apply them oddly. That is in singular a closer person is more likely to be called “kolega” or “koleżanka” rather than “znajomy” or “znajoma” while in plural “znajomi” are the people you usually meet in private, while “koledzy” are further acquaintances (you don’t even need to like all of them i.e. “koledzy” from school or work). The trouble with translations is that “kolega” and “colleague” have the same root, so they seem similar, but they’re not used in the same manner, at least not in singular, unless in a phrase “kolega po fachu” – a colleague specialising in the same field.

      Great story about Africa! I’m sure not many adult Poles would like to share their nickname with a stranger either, although they are not that private. Very frequent ones are “Łysy” (Bald) and “Gruby” (Fat) for example. They often come as a kind of offshoot from someone’s surname, but they can describe someone’s figure, personality or intelligence as well. “Kujon” is someone who learns too much and is too concerned with his grades. “Lizus” – from licking – someone who’s too concerned with the opinion of adults. Both mean disloyalty towards other kids. “Dyniek” – from pumpkin – could be someone with a too large head.

      On the other hand it’s better to accept one’s own nickname as soon as possible. If a person protests too much kids will come with something much worse.

      It’s interesting how English speakers became less formal than Poles. Two hundred years ago first names were more private in England than here. Practically the first name of the eldest man in a family was used only by his wife and only in a bedchamber. Since Poles didn’t have the practice of entailment they weren’t so strict with names either, but today we still can’t imagine being with everyone on first name basis.

  5. basia said

    Hi Sylwia:
    Continuation of thoughts/observations or things that just plain vex me.

    As you have already gathered, I’m a bit of a hybrid. First generation Canadian, but raised with very strong Polish influences (polska szkola, harcerstwo itd) in a neighbourhood where Poles outnumbered “real” Canadians of British origins. Therefore, I have an understanding of the Polish language and culture, but the deeper nuances of social interactions elude me. It’s frustrating really. Some behaviours are deeply ingrained in me and will never change (addressing a polish elder as pan/pani). My own children have been taught to include the honorific “pan/pani” with ALL adults, regardless of their backgrounds. I get some strange inquiring looks sometimes (from non-Poles) but I just add that it is an honorific that my children incorporate in their interactions with adults (when Mr./Mrs. + surname is not appropriate).

    However, incorporating “pan/pani” with adults who are close to me in age or younger, is a little more difficult. My North American background, which espouses familiarity, dominates in those situations. Obviously, when I find myself in those kind of situations, I do address everyone as “pan/pani”; it just feels a little weird to do so.

    I find social interactions in Polish to be a bit of a paradox really. Initially, everything is much more formal and kept at arms length until both parties cross over into the land of per “ty”. Afterwards, the pendulum of intimacy can swing quite far in the opposite direction (at times beyond my level of comfort) with the use of diminutives. My given name or simple short form (Barbara/Barb) is all that I am prepared tolerate in English. Creativity with name “invention” is not encouraged here after reaching adulthood (25+), regardless of friendship status. Only the most intimate situations might warrant a little improvisation. I can’t imagine suddenly improvising with my friends’ names or them doing so with mine. It would just be “odd” and sound more juvenile than warm. Strange isn’t it? For North Americans to be more “open and familiar” at the outset, and then to feel uncomfortable with more intimate forms of address when a friendship deepens. I just can’t seem to access the “register” of diminutives with other Poles. For me, it is reserved for children or lovers.

    I communicate regularly with a male cousin from Poland. We are close friends and he will frequently use diminutives when he writes to me (which sounds perfectly natural and warm when he does). Me, I feel like a deer in the headlights in those situations. I just don’t know how to reciprocate. I usually stick to Krzysiek or Krzys, but I welcome other suggestions. How do I address an adult male without it sounding like I am addressing a 3 year- old or a lover?



    • Sylwia said

      You’re touching on very interesting points, Basia.

      As I said earlier I’ll write another post about the pan/pani issue, because it’s more complicated. I too had a period of difficulty in going from “Ty” to “Pan/Pani” with people my age. We all do when we go to work. Until then we address everyone around informally, and until the end of high school we’re addressed per “Ty” by many adults too. It’s quite a long period of transition, and today we do it later than people before the war used to do.

      I can imagine the shock when crossing the public and private spheres. Poles have the problem too the other way around, because either they feel that someone is too friendly too soon, or they treat the friendliness as one’s genuine crossing of the two spheres, and then they go overboard while trying to reciprocate it.

      Take the problem with smiling for example. Americans just smile much more than Poles do. Poles read such a smile as an extraordinary instance of friendliness. They don’t feel yet ready to reciprocate it, but they don’t want to offend, so they try to pass the two spheres too early. Then you feel that they’re crossing your comfort sphere. Catch 22, isn’t it?

      On the other hand they may not want to pass the two spheres and become more aloof just in case, or if they notice that people just smile a lot they won’t notice when it becomes more than that.

      Generally we treat diminutives like one name, so we don’t feel like inventing them. Just every Katarzyna can be both Kasia and Kaśka. Usually the way we address her depends on her personality, age, the level of relationship, and the situation. So, for example, a very outgoing girl who’s normally Kaśka to everyone will be called Kasia when she cries, but Kaśka again when we feel that she’s cried enough and we want to change the mood from empathy to cheering. We change diminutives like intonation.

      On the other hand, a Katarzyna who’s usually more subdued will always be Kasia because she just doesn’t strike one like Kaśka.

      However, after reaching adulthood we don’t tend to use more diminutives than the basic -sia and -ka apart from the closest family and friends, so I’d say you’re correct with either Krzyś or Krzysiek. Perhaps Krzysio would be one more handy form in the nominative.

      Men are just too male to be called something else by women, while women might be addressed more tenderly by men, but only those really close. If you want to be more formal, i.e. scorn him for something, you might use Krzysztof, but otherwise I’d use the two as well.

      Krzych or Krzynio is something one says to a man one isn’t very close with, i.e. your friend from work you just like joking with.

      Couples usually find some special way to address each other. Either they use one form of a name but with a special intonation and inflection, or they choose a nick or even several of them. If your cousin has a wife or a girlfriend and she seems to be calling him something other than Krzysiek or Krzyś, then make sure to not use it. 😉 It’s a courtesy to let her have more claim on him than anyone else. Generally the form Krzysiek is the most casual. It’s likely what nearly everyone calls him.

      On the other hand I never called a boyfriend of mine with the soft ending diminutive. It’s something I’d call a cousin or a friend whom I see in a non-sexual way, but it depends on a woman.

      Men are more likely to use the soft endings for women of course, and they try to be more creative. It’s all as traditional in the male-female relationships as one can get. And women are very likely to use the soft endings with men when they ask for something. I.e. at work I might always call a man Krzysiek, but when I’d want him to do something for me I’d start with Krzysiu. Women are ostensibly manipulative with men! We’re very traditional in some ways, so we court each other at work.

      P.S. I do love Pride and Prejudice. I have another blog about it if you’re interested.

  6. basia said

    Thanks very much for such a complete answer, I really appreciate the trouble and effort you have gone to. :).

    Re: P&P. So what is your favourite screen version? Me, I’m a big fan of the Colin Firth HBO version. Near perfection for me. The main characters (Lizzie and Darcy)were perfectly cast and played. The only character I had a little trouble warming up to was Jane. Too “cieple kluchy” for my liking. The recent big screen version with Keira Knightly was pretty good as well. I almost didn’t want to see it because I didn’t want to be disappointed. But it had its own charm as well.
    What’s the name of your P&P blog and how did you become such an Austen fan?


    • Sylwia said

      Sorry for the delay, guys. Sometimes RL issues take over my time.

      The Firth one is my favourite too. I didn’t like the one with Keira for so many reasons they’re too many to be named, so I stick to saying that I liked the music.

      I became an Austen fan by reading P&P of course. Back at uni we were told to during English literature classes. Since Poles don’t read romances (no lit chick here either) we were all very offended. (After all we are snobs when it comes to education and one’s reading material.) So I didn’t even plan to read it. But then there was an interesting discussion during the classes I wanted to take part in, and so I read it after all, and Austen won over all of my prejudices. 😉 Her novels are ones of the most intelligent books I ever read.

      To go to my Austen blog click here Mending My Own Pen

      • basia said

        Persuasion is my second favourite; after P&P. A moving love story.

        Ah, Poles are such literary snobs. Passing up love stories by choice, sheesh 🙂
        I’ll check out your blog.

  7. mochafueled said

    First please call me Lon as mocha is just a screen name that I thought of on the fly. And yes not a nickname… since I have an unusual name I have attracted many nick names over the years.

    So I will tell you that you way out class me in the intelligence department when it comes to languages and then nuances of the. I find myself more an observer of cultural differences and issues. I was struck my your comment that Poles might be confused if there was not a word for deeper friendship. I think as Americans we place more emphasis on actions than a word. But I also think in some ways the deeper friendships you talk about are harder to obtain in American fast past and many ways superfical life style. Very few people have time to spend with others becoming deep friends.

    One of the things that attracts me to Poland is the sense of community and family that I feel when there. Yes Poles don’t smile a whole lot and your language is @#$ to understand. In the short visits I have had there I see more emphasis is placed on knowing each other and family time. I have come to appreciate the corner store that knows your face or even name type of community. So I appreciate your insights in your blog to the daily life of Warsaw and Poland… language is a bit of a mystery to me.

    And how do Poles define love or decide when they are in love… is that before or after they are married or hold hands for the first time….

    • Sylwia said

      Thanks, Lon! You can post here as Lon too. I turned off the option that held comments by first time posters for moderation.

      We too put emphasis on actions. It’s just that calling someone “przyjaciel” is one. Since we apply the word so extremely rarely the act of using it has its own significance. If someone says one has a lot of friends I don’t want to be a friend of theirs. One downplays the act by overusing the word. It’s like one doesn’t really want to date a person who boasts of having 100 lovers.

      The word “love”. Actually it depends on a person. Some can use the word “kocham” at the beginning of a relationship and some never. The differences lay elsewhere. One is that the English word “love” is very generic and has many meanings, so is used often by default. No Pole would say “I love your shoes” in Polish. Another is that our relationships differ. We don’t date, we court. One can use the word “kocham” as soon as courtship is over and relationship begins, while we date during a relationship, not earlier. I think it’s similar in many European countries though.

      Anyway, our relationships are very serious. Practically even though it’s not marriage it’s treated as one for all social purposes. So in fact one can’t date here a person one doesn’t love, and if one does one’s considered a scoundrel. So the non-committal period is longer, but once it’s over one’s fully committed. I think though it may seem as possessiveness to non-Poles.

  8. basia said

    Czesc Sylwiu:

    I think I’m on the verge of an “aha” moment about diminutives in Polish society.

    Please tell me if I finally have it right. My given name (Barbara)automatically allows all Polish acquaintances, friends and intimates to access the diminutives associated with Barbara (i.e. Baska, Basia, Basienka, Basiunia, Basiula etc). People will generally choose the version which complements my personality, age and the emotional context at the time of interaction. Am I right in understanding that there appears to be no need to “pre-clear” this choice of diminutive usage with the namesake (me)? If this is the case, then North American society is very different.

    Take your example of Katherine and all its derivatives (Kathy, Kate, Katie, Kat etc). I would never presume to call a “Katherine” by the name “Kathy”. I would likely receive a withering look or icy stare and be corrected quite forcefully. The “error” would never be repeated. I have friends named Susan, who would never tolerate being called “Sue”; ever. Our names are much more “fixed” in our society. I would not take “liberties” with a friend’s name unless i)I was given express permission or ii)I had reach the status of przyjaciolka and been afforded certain privileges of intimacy.

    I think this fact begins to explain my discomfort with diminutives. I come from a society where permission/consent is required (implictly or otherwise) to use a different form of a given/common name. Poles operate under different mores and rules. They assume (I hope I’m right here) that all the derivations of a particular name, within reason and appropriate context, are available for their use. You found it strange for me to cling to the diminutive Basia, and yet reject/disqualify all others. For me, Basia is my “name”, all the others are not and to invoke them without my permission actually feels a little rude to me, like someone overstepping boundaries. A real revelation for me. Curious, how something like one’s name and it usage, can reveal such differences in culture. Something you would do naturally and without thinking, produces an uncomfortable feeling in me.

    Anyway, I think we have beaten this topic to death. 🙂


    • Sylwia said

      You have nailed it, Basia!

      Ironically the only Polish example similar to the American attitude would be “Baśka”. That is there are some women who want to be seen as strong ones, and then they might insist they are “Baśka” and not “Basia”, because it’s the most casual, least intimate, unofficial version. But otherwise no one bothers, and insisting on “Basia” would seem strange, for the simple reason that “Basia” implies cordial feelings, so it’s a bit like asking others to like you. Now, I’m not saying that they shouldn’t like you, only that no one says “I want you to like me” in advance. It’s just that this version is more tender than some others. Still, it’s very likely people will call you “Basia” out of their own volition.

      The way they call you depends partly on their own personality as well. I.e. no one really knows another person, one only perceives her or him in a particular way, and this way depends on one’s own personality as much as on the other’s. Someone who’s generally more gregarious can have problems perceiving others as subdued. Or can think that they do them a favour by seeing them as gregarious as well, and then “Baśka” is more a compliment than “Basia” would be. In other words a woman who insists on being called “Baśka” herself is very likely to call everyone else something with the “-ka” ending

      Anyway, you’re right. It’s not a pre-cleared choice, only a natural way of addressing people depending on a situation. We simply don’t see the variations as our special names, and even a Baśka wouldn’t protest being called “Basia” by her grandma for example.

      I don’t think one needs to learn that. That is when addressing others use those variations with which you feel more natural. But as to how others address you there’s really no stopping them. 😉 The good thing is the older you get the more limited the choices. I.e. a young woman could be called “Bacha”, but once she begins her professional career it becomes less and less likely that anyone would address her in such a way.

      Also, as we mature we do limit the choices for ourselves as well. I wouldn’t call a girl “Bacha” today even though I could that when I was a teenager. Similarly I wouldn’t use the word “kumpela”. Some words belong to the slang of teenagers, and we drop them with time.

  9. pinolona said

    I actually feel quite relieved that Polish has ‘kolega/koleżanka’ and ‘znajomi’. I’ve always felt uncomfortable saying ‘my friend’ this and ‘my friend’ that in English, when often I’m talking about someone I barely know (you can’t use ‘acquaintance’ without sounding as though your are in a Jane Austen novel). I’m a fairly reserved Brit who doesn’t easily give out their phone number or invite people over for tea, so I’m quite relieved to have these extra levels of distance!
    Having said that, I think most people I know socially here are kolega or koleżanka (mostly students or other young professionals), and I find myself using ‘znajomi’ only in the plural, as in szłam do kina z znajomymi, odwiedzam znajomych. When do I use the singular, rather than kolega/koleżanka?

  10. […] 29, 2009 In answer to Pinolona in the thread My Friend Is Not My Przyjaciel I wrote so much about the differences between znajomy, […]

  11. Sara said

    Now, I understand why Babcia cautioned me call people I only knew a short while as aquaintances and not friends! My Grandmere was very wise, indeed!!!
    She also taught me not throw the words,’I love you” around loosely either! Tis true, tis true my Babcia was very wise and loved me very much!
    Her name was Tatiana! Thank you for writing your blog!

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