Poland is a Slavic country, located in Central-East Europe. Its culture has changed rapidly since the collapse of the Soviet-controlled communist regime. The post-communist era has propelled a new national order, attitude and optimism in the past 30 years. Amidst this, some people are still adapting to the shifts in society. A broad diversity of lifestyles have flourished and some of the younger generation have begun embracing more liberal values. Traditionalism and conservatism remain evident in the country’s religious landscape, social customs and core values. Poles also continue to show sentimentality over the past and a tendency to romanticise ideas. However, this is accompanied with a sharp practicality and realistic mindset.
Polish society is quite hierarchical and there is a general acceptance of social positions. There has been a longstanding cultural distinction between the rural/peasant population and urban intellectuals throughout history. However, the Polish countryside has changed enormously and the intelligentsia are in the process of transformation into the middle class. The population is largely united across different socioeconomic backgrounds through shared conviction in family values and egalitarianism. Indeed, Poland’s deep grounding in family values leads the country to be morethan many other Western countries. As a result, it regularly gets misleadingly defined as ‘Eastern’ when compared to Central Europe. However, Poles have traditionally thought of themselves as the ‘softest’ of all the Slavs.
The Polish are conscious of their recent history and many social attitudes remain influenced and motivated by past events. It is widely acknowledged that the country suffered greatly over the 20th century. Almost every Polish family would have been affected to varying degrees by the persecution and trauma of the second World War. In the post-war period, Poland came under Soviet control – only gaining independence in 1989. These years featured general industrialisation, urbanisation and many improvements in the standard of living in Poland. However, the communist regime was marred by social unrest, severe economic difficulties,obstacles and the suppression of certain self-expression and personal freedom. As a result of this period’s impact, many people continue to be rather sceptical of politics and mistrusting of overriding authority.
The national anthem of Poland reflects its history of struggle, proclaiming in its title “Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła” – “Poland Has Not Yet Perished”. Many Poles see the tragedy of the past to be integral in forming the Polish identity. Nevertheless, one can misperceive Polish culture when only drawing upon the 20th century to inform ideas. Poles have often been characterised as sombre, serious people. While this stereotype may still hold some truth for the older generation, it is generally unrepresentative of modern-day attitudes. Many Poles consider themselves to be quite relaxed and other Slavic countries often think of them as ‘unserious’ people. The country has progressed immensely in many areas; the culture is becoming increasingly fast-paced and success-oriented, reflecting globalisation and growth, and there has been a noticeable shift towards optimism. In a recent survey, 76% of Poles reported they were either very or moderately satisfied with their living standards.1
Nobility and Ethics
Justice and morality appear to be guiding principles in Poland and people seem to have an awareness of the nobility underpinning their actions. This is likely a result of the country’s tumultuous history, as well as the Catholic Church promoting ideas of forgiveness and mercy. The royal family also traditionally promoted goodwill in their public statements and actions. In this way, there has been a strong tradition of generosity and clemency in Poland; people tend to empathise quickly and appeal to others’ understanding when needing an allowance or favour. They are also quite aware of whether their actions are perceived to be honourable in others’ eyes. This cultural quality has seen the Polish begin to serve as an emerging example of peace and unity on the global stage, proudly heading the EU alliance in 2011. On a more day-to-day basis, it is expected that all business and social exchanges are ‘po ludzku’ (conducted in a humane manner).
In line with the generous nature of Polish culture, people are noticeably cordial and chivalrous. They often help one another even if it requires significant effort. On the surface, individuals also dress neatly and may display their religion visibly. Australians can perceive this demeanour as overly formal or conservative, especially in regard to the courtesy shown towards women. However, the Polish actually tend to be quite unreserved.
One may find that casual relationships seem rather intimate as Poles are often honest and open about their emotions to others. The ‘Polski temperament’ has become the common phrase used to describe this willingness to express their feelings. They are quite comfortable sharing their thoughts even when they differ, as they do not immediately see disagreements of opinion to be detrimental to personal rapport. In this way, conversation can be colourful as people debate and explore ideas without judgement of character. However, if people argue without graciousness or cannot ‘let go’ of a topic and move on, it becomes more socially unacceptable.
Sometimes Poles may justify and defend themselves quite strongly if they feel their nobility has been unduly criticised. However, most expect to be pulled into line when they are doing something inappropriate. People generally have little hesitation in redressing wrongs and misunderstandings quickly to clear the air. The general Polish approach is straightforward: the sooner the problem is dealt with, the quicker it’s resolved.
The Poles are known to be good improvisers and quite comfortable adapting to situations. While people appreciate rules and schedules, the reality is that they may not work or are subject to change under unpredictable circumstances. Thus, while certain systems and arrangements may be in place, they are rarely thought of as totally concrete. This cultural tolerance for imprecision and flexibility can encourage spontaneity and a light disregard for law and order in daily life (i.e. getting out of a car stopped at a traffic light). To non-Polish people, this approach to time and problem solving can seem disorganised or frivolous. However, such actions are practically minded and seen as a capable way of navigating around situations. In communist times, this flexibility and figure-it-out-yourself attitude was helpful to get things done. Today, improvisation is less prevalent in business and personal matters; however, a common attitude prevails – if you don’t seek to help yourself, even God can’t help you.
Stoicism has also become a well-recognised quality of the Polish character. People tend to deal with more serious issues without much complaint. However, some may also handle problems as they occur instead of working to prevent them. This reflects a cultural tendency to optimistically romanticise ideas and, in turn, underestimate or minimise problems. For example, one often hears the turn of phrase “Jakoś to będzie”, meaning ‘things will somehow turn out okay by the end’, or “Dobra, dobra” (‘easy, easy’ – everything will be alright) in response to complaints.
1 CBOS Public Opinion Research Centre, 2016