From a cultural point of view, Poland's customs and norms won't be completely alien to Western expats. However, there are a few Polish cultural practices that may surprise foreigners and may even cause some light culture shock.
Meeting and greeting in Poland
Greetings and farewells in Poland are marked with a kiss on each cheek for those who are on close terms, and the usual handshake between men and business acquaintances. Women shouldn’t be surprised if older men kiss their hands.
Poles do not say goodbye in doorways (including a handshake through a doorway) as it is thought to bring bad luck.
If learning Polish, it is a good idea to master and utilise the polite forms of address as soon as possible. For native English speakers this often feels uncomfortably formal, but for Poles it is second nature and while they are generally forgiving of mistakes, it is an easy way of showing respect.
Polish people are not in the habit of smiling gratuitously at strangers; if smiling at a stranger, expect to be met with suspicion.
Gift-giving etiquette in Poland
If invited to somebody's house for a meal, it is polite to bring a gift – flowers or alcohol are the most common choices, but sweets are another option. Give flowers in odd numbers and avoid blooms that have cultural significance, such as yellow chrysanthemums, which are used at funerals.
Dress in Poland
Business and work attire in Poland tends to be quite formal. Women generally wear shirts and suits, while men wear collared shirts and suit trousers. If doing business it's best to err on the side of formality. If teaching, the rules are a bit more relaxed, but in general very casual work attire is not considered to be professional.
In most Polish houses, the householders don't wear outdoor shoes inside and it’s best to follow suit. Also, there is almost always a coat rack inside the door, where visitors will be expected to leave outerwear in winter.
Language barrier in Poland
The language barrier is one of the biggest issues for foreigners in Poland. Polish grammar and pronunciation make it difficult for speakers of Western European languages to learn, though it may be easier for someone who already knows another Slavic language.
That said, if staying in Poland long term, it is worth learning as much Polish as possible for the sake of convenience, as many services don't operate in English. Many young people know English and other languages, but expats will be more independent if they learn to conduct basic exchanges in Polish.
On the positive side, Poles tend to be patient and appreciative of a foreigner's efforts to learn Polish.
Religion in Poland
Poland is a Catholic country, with a fair sprinkling of Eastern Orthodox, especially in the eastern part of the country. If visiting churches, one will be expected to behave in a quiet and respectful manner – keep hands out of pockets and voices hushed, and men should remove their hats (this doesn't apply to women).
Also, be aware of church and other public holidays in Poland, over which almost everything will be closed. Christmas gift-giving and the main Christmas dinner take place on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day, as is the case in many other countries.
Bureaucracy in Poland
For those applying for a residency visa or setting up a business in Poland, the paperwork can seem overwhelming. Many systems are not yet computerised, so expect to fill in plenty of forms and stand in long queues.
For expats who have a Polish partner, are a non-EU citizen and are applying for a temporary residency, be aware that part of the application process will be a home visit at the declared address with no warning so that the state can ascertain the credibility of an applicant's relationship and listed address. This may include invasive tactics such as rummaging through a wardrobe or requesting to see where private papers are kept. Both partners will be interviewed separately at the beginning of the residency process, to ensure that their stories about their relationship match – this interview will take place in Polish, so it may be necessary to have a translator present.
Racial identity in Poland
Poland, at this point in its history, is a culturally homogeneous country where the vast majority of the population is white and Polish-speaking. Consequently, many Poles are not used to interacting with foreigners, and non-European-looking expats may find themselves the object of frequent stares and whispered commentary, especially from the older generation. There is no easy way to deal with this, apart from developing a very thick skin.
The urban/rural divide in Poland
Expats in Poland will most likely find themselves living in a larger city where it will be easier to find someone who speaks their language. It is worth noting that life in the countryside in Poland is much different to urban life – people are generally much poorer and may struggle when dealing with a foreigner. It is essential that expats planning to spend time in rural Poland learn some Polish and accept that interactions may be much more difficult than they are in Polish cities.
Money and salaries in Poland
If seeking work in Poland, do not be surprised to find that no salary is advertised. Interviewees will often be asked about their 'financial expectations' during interviews, with no indication given about what the prospective employer is ready to pay. It is a good idea to find out what the typical salary is for the job in question and to determine what an acceptable salary would be before going to the interview.
►For details about business culture in the country, read Doing Business in Poland
►Read Expat Experiences in Poland for some insights from expats already living in the country
"Learning to navigate purely by public transport and not relying on a car were pleasant adjustments. I think the main parts of culture shock has to do with the level of customer service that is pretty erratic here. It can be beyond amazing and inexplicably awful, and everything in between."
Read more about expat life in Krakow, Poland in our interview with South African expat Leonie.
Are you an expat living in Poland?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Poland. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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