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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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’!

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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