I read a very interesting post and subsequent comments by Island and his readers about the central mystery of the Polish character. It focuses on the possible mistrust of Poles to strangers as a cause for their rudeness. I gave it some thought, and here’s my thesis:

Polish people aren’t rude, they simply aren’t too polite.

Of course I agree that we might appear rude to foreigners, I can easily see that, but I think it’s also natural to assume that we have different standards of politeness. Naturally we’re talking here of the public sphere, and not private, but the clue is in our readiness for crossing the line between the two spheres.

I think that this all should be defined as “effort”. That is Poles are extra polite when they want to make an effort, and they’re cold when they don’t. This effort means an extra commitment in another person’s troubles and feelings. It’s sincere and real. It’s not a trifling thing, and it should be reciprocated. The need to reciprocate the effort is exactly the reason why we make it only for the individuals we know and care about, and why we don’t make it in any other case. By rule we’re not physically able to help everyone, so we have to limit the group of people to a reasonable number. In fact, I could say that Poles are not polite at all. The way they behave is an outside expression of the way they feel towards someone. Politeness to us might mean being one shade nicer than we really feel, but not more. Poles are not polite when they’re nice, they simply really like the person, and since they like them they are willing to commit.

In a very distant past, when they opened the western borders, I went to Paris with some friends. We were then poor like for the western standards. We could afford only some cheap rooms, metro and museum tickets, and some basic food. Otherwise we knew that we should be very careful not to spend too much. I went for something to a store, and on my way there I saw a boutique. I didn’t plan buying anything, but I was curious and wanted to see what they had there. I wasn’t there two minutes when this woman approached me, all in smiles, asking what I was looking for. I told her ‘I’m just looking’ – something that warns off a Polish clerk enough to send them to the opposite corner. She didn’t give up. She took the trousers I was looking at and told me to try them on. I dutifully did, all happy that they were too large and too long – something that in my opinion would make the woman give up. Well, no! When she saw me, she kneeled down and folded the trousers. That was too much for me. You may laugh, but I might starve rather than refuse a woman who kneels in front of me to sell me something. She was far too polite.

That taught me to avoid smiling clerks, to enter only large stores and never small boutiques, to leave as soon as a clerk begins a chat. Yet, once in Tunisia I did the same, well aware what I’m being drawn into. This kind man gave us a short tour around the town and took us to his fragrance store. We knew very well why he was polite, and we knew we’d have to buy something, yet, since we committed, we bought this absolutely useless stuff. Another time, in Vilnius, we were approached by an older man who told us some extra stories about the place – we took him for dinner. To Poles politeness obliges. It’s an effort that must be reciprocated.

I don’t want Polish clerks to be polite because that would leave me no room for refusal or freedom of choice. Till they behave like people at work I have a feeling that I don’t leave any mark on them. I can step in and out without risk, and go to another store without feeling that I betray them. But when they are polite, when they make an effort, I feel like their guest. I can’t refuse them.

So I think that when foreigners are looking at us they think that a smile doesn’t cost a thing, while we think it does cost a lot. The word namolny (importunate) may refer to a stranger who smiles too much.

It’s just as our language has a more narrow meaning of “friendship” than English. An English speaking person can say that they went to cinema with their friends. I wouldn’t say that in Polish unless they all were my friends. If I went to cinema with my friend and her boyfriend of many years I still wouldn’t make the generalization. He’s not my friend, even though I know him well and like him a lot. So I’d say I went with znajomi (acquaintances).

A friend is a person whom one can’t refuse unless for a very important reason, a close friend is one who knows our secrets, whom we trust as ourselves, who’s obliged to do everything in their power to help us, and vice versa. Our homes aren’t our castles where our close friends and friends are concerned. They have higher status than our further family (aunts, uncles, cousins etc.) A znajomy is someone I’m likely to help if it doesn’t cost me too much. A neighbour is someone I might help if it costs me little. A colleague is someone I hope won’t ask my help in anything too difficult (even if I’ve known them for years). A co-worker is someone I want to keep at bay and not cross the public/private line unless I truly like them (I hate when in some companies they demand that all of the co-workers address each other per ‘Ty’ – it’s much more difficult to refuse when you can’t keep someone at a distance). A clerk is someone I don’t want to feel obliged to at all. A stranger who is in one of the above relationships with someone we know receives a place depending on their and our own relationship with the linking person. Ask a Pole to help someone you know, and the first question you’ll receive will be how well you know the person. They’ll evaluate the needed effort and multiply it by the relationship factor. And the effort might really be of a considerable value. It might mean money, or a lot of our energy and private time that we’d like to have for ourselves otherwise, but we can’t refuse in many situations. It often happens that someone countersigns a bank loan for a total stranger, just because they’re a znajomy of one’s znajomy.

I think that we do smile, but a Polish smile is not just a gesture, it’s a form of commitment. By smiling we tell others that we like them and open ourselves to the possibility of being asked for help, and we’re not very good at refusing. The more a person has to offer the less likely they are to smile. The extreme example are the public institutions where the clerks just can’t smile if they want to do their job. Otherwise they’d be spending their working hours on taking care of people’s tax declarations. But go to them and say that you know someone they know, and they will smile and spend their time on filling the declarations for you. Yet, if you just go and smile they’ll think you want to coax them into extra work. Similarly, smile at a policeman and they’ll think you want to avoid paying a fee. But, when I once stopped my car to ask some policemen about directions, I did smile and they smiled back. It was nothing and they were glad to help. I was then accompanied by some Americans, and they were amazed that our policemen are so nice. Imagine that! Our smile doesn’t mean we’re polite, it means we like you, and if offered prematurely or in a wrong situation it seems artificial and false.

In the comments I saw some references to our much greater willingness to help each other during communism. (Note that Poles who read about our mistrust and rudeness automatically linked it to our willingness or unwillingness to make an effort.) Indeed, I remember many cases from those times when complete strangers received very crucial help. People knew that they wouldn’t manage otherwise, and it was a part of resistance, but it still was the case of knowing someone who knows someone else. Today they can go and buy anything they need. So we just placed colleagues, neighbours, and strangers one stage down on our relationships ladder. We don’t need to make that much effort anymore, but the clerks were smiling even less back then. They had too little to offer, and there were too many people who’d want it from them.

On the other hand I think that Poles don’t necessarily appreciate the western politeness (I say western because in general I didn’t notice a difference in countries like Lithuania, Czech, Slovakia, Bulgaria or Greece). The problem to us is that we can’t recognize when people are sincere and so willing to make an effort. They smile and they’re polite as if they liked us a lot, and it puts us out of balance, because we’re risking appearing importunate by assuming that they do like us as much as it seems. A Pole needs much more time to come to this point of a relationship where they would be ready to behave like that, and so we don’t know how to read the appearances. But then we fall into the trap and do too much, and the foreigners are shocked with all of the effort we’re going to, or feel that we trespass their private sphere. We simply can’t read the difference between politeness and sincerity of feelings. A Pole is likely to be happy to return home from their holidays abroad because they feel they don’t have to pretend anymore. Of course I’m not saying that other people are pretending, rather that we need to pretend to be so polite, because normally it means something else to us.

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