In collaboration with experienced specialists on cross-cultural communication, The British Council has released a concise guidebook entitled: “Intercultural fluency. Global skills for business.” The aim of the publication was to familiarise Brits with the mentality of Poles in the context of potential business cooperation.
This collection of practical tips is preceded with an introduction in which the authors point to three crucial aspects of approaching and handling cultural differences in general.
First of all, it is essential to realise that one is dealing with a different culture, which inevitably will produce differing perceptions and behaviours when confronted with a particular issue. It is not about rejecting one’s own values, but rather about being willing to respect each others’ differences.
Secondly, it must be taken into consideration that depending on a given business partner, their degree of intercultural competence may vary considerably. They may be more or less accepting of otherness, which might make the foreigner feel more or less comfortable.
And last but not least, the context is key. Supposed reactions and treatment of foreigners will depend on:
- the type of business organisation,
- location (city or countryside),
- social status, age or position in social hierarchy,
- whether the meeting is taking place in a public space or at somebody’s home,
- the fact that most countries have subcultures, which can be regional or generational.
The guidebook then lays out five core tips, as listed below:
1. Expect Polish people to focus on the negatives
In Poland, people tend to begin the discussion stating the negative aspects of a given subject, instead of emphasising what is good or right.
When asked to express opinion, a Pole will instinctively focus attention on what’s not entirely positive. That’s because in Polish mentality, things which are working perfectly fine aren’t worth mentioning, and instead it is better to concentrate on what could use some improvement. The impression the British get is that Poles don’t feel the need to praise others. It’s precisely this feature that makes Polish people appear to be negative. They are unable to speak well about all those fantastic, well-functioning things. There is some truth to it. In Poland, expressing praise towards the successes of one’s own or their children, relatives or friends is frequently considered as a form of arrogant boasting.
2. Polish people are reserved
Building relations takes time. “Do not haste with friendliness” – advises point 2 of the British Council’s guide. Polish people prefer to withdraw and scrutinise for awhile before they make friends. It’s customary in Poland to avoid showing emotions. If you force a Pole to express emotions too quickly, you will be met with resentment and aggression.
Being excessively chummy with a newly-met acquaintance arouses suspicion in Polish people. The safest solution is to use conventional courtesies such as “Pan” (Mister) and “Pani” (Miss), at least in the initial stage of the relation, or until more direct pronouns are suggested. Based on my own experience, I can conclude that Poles who have developed a high intercultural IQ are much more open, less suspicious and more eager to develop private relations. These are usually people who regularly interact with foreigners, travel, or have been immersed in a different culture for some time.
3. Brace yourself for a society of traditional, albeit evolving values
In general, Polish society is quite traditional and patriarchal. Culture, politics and business are all male domains there. 90% of all Polish town mayors are men.
The society is also rather homogenous. Poles are suspicious towards both foreigners and each other, but this is slowly changing. They are gradually becoming more tolerant. Racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes are the Polish bread and butter, while political correctness is still an alien concept to this culture.
Polish society used to be quite religious, however that also is undergoing change. For various historical reasons, the catholic church used to have tremendous impact on social life. Nowadays, it is gradually losing its firm grip.
Taboo conversation topics include religion, history or politics, because they all spark controversy. It’s advisable to choose the weather, traffic, or health issues as safe subjects for small talk.
4.By keeping your goals realistic, you will earn Polish people’s respect. Poles aren’t that crazy about magnificent visionary ideas aiming for the moon (which usually captivate British hearts). Since Poles venerate sincerity, they are more likely to be impressed by visions and goals that are feasible and within reach. As they often say, “Have no expectations, and you’ll avoid disappointments.”
Sometimes Poles are perceived as cynical and pessimistic by nature. They can be suspicious and assume that everybody is lying. One explanation for that lies in the nation’s turbulent communist past. Polish people are very sensitive to propaganda and the benefit of the doubt they can give you is limited.
5. Be prepared for rigid work hierarchy
Polish people are accustomed to strong hierarchical structure of work, as a result of which the superior’s word is deemed unquestionable. Subordinates won’t dabble in disputes, they’re there to execute commands. Critical thinking and brainstorming are not widespread practices, therefore one cannot expect employees to burst with creativity. At least that is the conventional approach. Because the new generation, raised in the climate of western individualistic influences, is much more open and eager to question the status quo and express their opinions.
All in all, this short publication encapsulates all advice for Brits and possibly other foreigners who are interested in doing business with Polish people.
As a Pole myself, I rather see it as a mirror which can reflect our behaviours and national characteristics, and allow us to see how we are perceived by others. The mere realisation that we are seen as a nation of whinging pessimists provokes a reflection. Throughout my international experience, I often heard comments from trusted individuals with whom I had established close relationships that I was being negative, constantly focusing on the shortcomings and disadvantages. It made me think. As a result, I tried to adjust to communication patterns appropriate in particular cultures. For instance, in the Emirates or Bahrain, especially when talking to local people, I always tried my best to follow their culture code, highlighting the positive aspects and turning the blind eye to the downsides. While I was living in England, attending a local college, I worked on my interaction skills, and despite being shy by nature I learned to express my views in public, and would willingly engage in debate with the teacher, because it was a desirable behaviour in that setting. And that is what developing your intercultural competence is all about. Observation, tolerance, openness, participation, and adjustment are the key instruments that allow us to operate at the borderlines of differing cultures.
Editing: Dominika Job, manager at Business & Prestige, cover photo by Marek Kutysz