Poland is a remarkable country filled with everything from mountain peaks and cobblestone streets to modern design and heartwarming cuisine. Yet it is also one that Americans misunderstand. Below, I explore some of the reasons why it can be hard to bridge the gap between our cultures. I also make suggestions for doing so more easily.
Although an increasing number of Poles speak English, very few Americans have the first idea of how to tackle Polish. Let’s start with pronunciation, where even basic words like cześć (hi), przepraszam (excuse me), and dziekuję (thank you) tie the American tongue in knots. But it’s not just a surfeit of s’s and z’s that poses a challenge – it’s also the grammatical system. In English, we convey meaning through word order. In Polish, what matters is the relationship between noun phrases and verbs, and meaning is conveyed by how the ends of words change according to the situation.
For example, in English, the word dog does not change if we say The dog is good/You are walking with the dog/We talk about the dog. In Polish, the word pies (dog) does change: Pies jest dobry/Idziesz z psem/Mówimy o psa. There is a lot of logic to this system, and the beauty of it becomes apparent the more that you study it. Unfortunately, because many Americans don’t know what a direct object or predicate is, learning Polish requires that we learn a new alphabet, new sounds, new words, and a new grammar system, while also playing catch-up on grammatical basics.
Another barrier is our historical perspective. Like most Americans, I spent my school years learning about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War ad nauseam. There was usually a special civil rights section that centered on Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., and occasionally, we also got to learn about World War II, where we focused on heroic battles like D-Day. As a result, many of my fellow citizens have a narrative that goes like this: We liberated ourselves from the British with “the shot heard round the world,” then we had a big bloody fight between North and South, then we saved the world from tyranny, and finally, we realized that we should be less racist. Ta-dah!
This simplified history leaves out a lot of messy details, to be sure. But the reason it is so difficult to mesh with Polish history is that, with the exception of World War II, none of the famous names, dates, and places overlap at all. I remember being on tours in Warsaw and Krakow and feeling utterly befuddled by names like Kazimierz the Great, Jagiełło, Sigismund, and Tadeusz Kościuszko. I also had no historical anchor for events like The Partitions, had never heard of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and with the exception of having seen Schindler’s List, had no comprehension whatsoever about the Polish experience of the Second World War.
And it’s not just the story but the message that gets lost in translation. American history is more complicated than the way it is told, but the overall theme is one of triumph. Dark moments may befall us, sure, but through hard work and determination, we shall overcome them. In Poland, it is entirely different. Here there is a narrative of loss, betrayal, suffering, and humiliation. Yes, there are glorious moments, but these are too often a fleeting whisper before a blackguard steals the scene.
This leads us to culture, which is one of the biggest divides between Americans and Poles. A review of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions reveals significant differences. For example, although both countries are individualistic, the United States is significantly more so, and whereas Americans are egalitarian, Poles have a strong respect for and need for hierarchy. Another striking difference is in uncertainty avoidance, where Poles score near the top of the charts. According to Hofstede, countries that score highly “maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. In these cultures there is an emotional need for rules (even if the rules never seem to work).” This clashes with the American embrace of change, our trust of novelty, and our desire to shake things up. Finally, we clash when it comes to indulgence, or “the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses.” Because Poland scores low here, Hofstede explains that Poland has a culture of restraint, which means that they “may feel that indulging themselves is somewhat wrong” and may “have a tendency toward cynicism and pessimism.” In a sharp contrast, Americans score highly, and are considered a more indulgent society.
Finally, Americans feel confused dealing with Poland because we are uncomfortable with geography. Because of the Cold War, many know it is “over there” behind the former Iron Curtain, but beyond this, people feel uncertain about where it is located, whether it was part of the U.S.S.R., and how it fits with other Slavic countries. Likewise, besides Warsaw, Krakow, and Auschwitz, Americans likely cannot name any Polish places, and would be hard-pressed to find these on a map. Finally, there is practically zero familiarity with significant geographic features such as the Tatras Mountains, the Baltic Sea, or rivers like the Vistula and Oder. This lack of familiarity with Poland’s terrain and places means that Poland is a jumbled place in the American imagination.
However, all is not lost. Americans have an affinity with Poland as a result of immigration to our country and perceive that Poland is on our side in international affairs (even if we don’t understand how the EU and NATO work). Furthermore, we have some familiarity with Polish food – at least pierogi, kielbasa, and stuffed cabbage. What’s more, thanks to the Internet and a growing interest in travelling to Central and Eastern Europe, there has been no better, or easier, time to learn.
So, what can Americans who would like to learn about Poland do?
- Start learning Polish for free with a program like Duolingo. This will help you get used to the different letter combinations and sounds, not to mention the new words and sentence structure, before you depart. I also use audio lessons on Pimsleur (buy 5 at a time so that you don’t get more than you need).
- Start exploring all things Polish on social media, particularly through Facebook groups and on Instagram. This will help you develop a better visual reference for the country.
- Pick up a good book. Start with Norman Davies, the British professor and historian who is adored in Poland for his books presenting history from a Polish perspective. Also consider The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation by Louise Steinman for a very thoughtful and thought-provoking look at Jewish culture in Poland and the legacy of the Holocaust. A great author for regional context (and some Poland-specific insight) is Timothy Garten Ash. And, don’t forget the importance of cultural guides like Culture Shock Poland.
- Settle in for a movie. World War II obviously figures strongly here. There is Kanał by Andrzej Wajda, the first film made about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Katyń – also by Wajda – about the 1940 Katyn Massacre, and Academy Award winner Ida, which deals with the aftermath of the war through the eyes of a young woman about to become a nun. For additional ideas, consider this list by The Culture Trip.
- Get thee to a Polish restaurant or festival! Many cities have at least one, and these are an excellent opportunity to engage with Polish culture in a local, accessible, tactile way. Just don’t stop at kielbasa – there is so much more to eat!
Polish history and culture can be a lot for Americans to grapple with because it is so far away and there is so much that we do not know. However, with a little bit of interest and effort, it is possible to bridge this gap. Are you interested in learning more about Poland, or in pre-departure training or coaching? Let me know!