When in Poland…

By Joyce B Majewska

The Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland.

The Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland.


What do you do when you are on a long vacation in a foreign country and no one speaks your language?  Why, try to blend in by learning their language of course!  That was what I did.

I attended the Summer School of Polish Language and Culture for a couple of weeks, in the hopes that I could have simple conversations with the locals and know more than just the important Yes/tak (pronounced as ‘takh’, Polish a is similar to our Bahasa Malaysia a or Bahasa Indonesia a) , No/nie (pronounced nyeh) and How much?/ile costuje? (pronounced ee-leh ko-stu-yeh) when I went shopping.

THE BEGINNERS' CLASS: (from left) Brendan and Eric (Americans), Hermine (Armenian) and Kumiko (Japanese).

THE BEGINNERS’ CLASS: (from left) Brendan and Eric (Americans), Hermine (Armenian) and Kumiko (Japanese).

I had a lot of fun studying at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, (the ń is a nasal n) Poland.  I met a lot of very nice people from all over the world: my classmates were a blend of Americans, Armenian and Japanese.  I went scavenger hunting with Kate, a Moldovan teammate whose country I was not familiar with prior to meeting her and learned Polish folk dance with students from Georgia, Netherlands, Turkey, Italy and Russia. Our teachers were awesome and I am very happy to note that I still hang out with one of them.

Although I am heavily influenced by North American culture through relatives, friends and the media, what I found most interesting was the difference between our Malaysian and Polish social etiquette.

Here are 10 personal tips on how to navigate socially in Poland, Central Europe.

1.  Do greet everyone formally by saying Dzień Dobry! (pronounced jenn doh-bre, with the e such as our Bahasa Malaysia kerana) meaning “Good Day!”.

The informal Cześć! (pronounced as cheshch) which means “Hello!” is reserved only for close family and friends. Strangers especially will find it very offensive if you use the informal greeting.

2.  Do not address anyone by their last name or their surname.

It is considered very impolite. You either address them by their first name or their full name.

3.  Do extend your hand first for a handshake if you are a woman.

Men traditionally extend their hands for handshakes to reveal that they did not carry weapons.  So, women were not expected to shake hands since they were not involved in any hand combat.

4.  Do not ask authorities questions.

One example that a professor gave was when a bus came to a standstill. All the passengers were talking amongst themselves, guessing and speculating as to the possible cause(s) for about 15 minutes and no one thought of asking the bus driver even though he would obviously know why!  Basically, no one trusts the authorities mostly due to the years of being oppressed under the Soviet Domination (1945-1989).

5.  Do have the exact amount of cash or change on you.

For example, if the grocery bill amounts to 89.74 zł*, you better have that exact amount or else the cashier is going to roll her eyes and start asking you to empty your wallet to look for loose change or she would ask you to go to another place to get the exact amount. It is the same with bus fare. It is your problem if you do not have the exact amount.

6.  Do not ring the bell in the bus.

If you want to get off, just stand by the door before your bus stop and bus driver will let you off.

7.  Do complain.

For example, when someone asks you how your day was, it is acceptable to reply with, “It is not a good day” and then explain or complain why it is so.  I overheard the caretaker at the university complaining to one of the students about the mop she was using and the next day she was complaining about the bucket to another student… what an interesting way to have a conversation.

8.  Do not ask the university for their summer semester’s schedule ahead of time.

There won’t be any until maybe a few days before the semester begins.  This is not due to their lack of planning or lack of care, they are just very relaxed during the Summer session.

9.  Do learn greetings in Japanese if you are an Asian in Toruń .

The locals will assume that you are a Japanese because there are several Japanese families that live and work in Toruń .

I was walking with my cousin in downtown Torun and I was telling her about an incident when a bunch of elementary school children were walking by me on a staircase at a museum and I heard someone say, “Konichiwa!”

I did not think anything of it until the same group passed by me on their way downstairs and one of the boys stopped in front of me, looked me in the eyes and said, “Konichiwa!” loud and clear. I was startled for a few seconds and eventually replied, “Konichiwa,” and the boy beamed and went off with his smiling friends.

Just as I finished relating this incident to my cousin, a bunch of university students walked by us and greeted us with “Konichiwa!” My cousin just stood in her tracks while I replied, “Konichiwa!” to the pleasant students and off they went happily leaving my cousin all giggly thinking about the coincidence.

10.  Do know that there is a difference in language when you are communicating with a dog and a human.

I once told a boy to sit down by saying, “Siad!” (pronounced as shad).  The boy looked at me all perplexed while his parents laughed.  He eventually sat down with the same astonished look still on his face.

I later learned that the proper way to tell someone to sit is, “Siadaj”(pronounced as sha-dai) or “Usiąść” (pronounced oo-shonshch).  “Siad” is reserved for animals.  The poor boy!

WAITING FOR CLASS: Joyce with her son, Sulimir.

WAITING FOR CLASS: Joyce with her son, Sulimir.

Besides the language barrier and the difference in culture, Poland is a beautiful country to visit.  Watch out for my my next article, where I will be writing on the top 10 places to visit in Poland!

Do widzenia! (pronounced doh- vid- zen- nya), meaning “See you!”

*złoty is the Polish currency, pronounced zwote

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