Thursday, March 14, 2013

Clash of Cultures: Diplomacy

From Merriam-Webster (the dictionary) : skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility; tact

Example #1:

You recently bought a new hat. It looks like this...

You aren't quite sure when you get it home whether or not the saleslady was telling the truth when she said you looked "absolutely fab" so you ask a couple dear friends to tell you the truth...

"What do you think?"

American friend: Oh my gosh, what an awesome hat! I would never have the guts to buy that, you are so crazy! But you know, will you even get a chance to wear it out of the house?  I mean, it's pretty outrageous, and you're such a casual dresser. It would be a shame to pay all that money and then never wear it...

Polish friend: That hat is hideous.

Example #2:

You're on vacation with two of your best buds, one American and one Polish. You have brought along your new swimsuit that you bought on sale at the end of last Summer. Over the winter you have eaten one two many Santa Claus cookies and your new suit is a little snug. You look a little like this...

"What do you think about my new suit? It's been a year since I bought it, maybe it's too tight after all?"

American friend: Oh my goodness, that is adorable! You are so smart to shop when all the sales are going on, I always forget to do that. It might be a bit tight in a couple places but nothing that a cute beach cover up and a bit of a tan can't fix. If you're feeling really self-conscious you can throw this cute sundress over it and just take it off when you go in the water.

Polish friend:  You look fat.

Example #3:

You decide to move to a new country. You tell your friends.  You look a little like this...

This is supposed to be "trepidation"

American friend: How exciting! That will be such an amazing adventure for your family. I know there will be difficult moments but you can handle it! Good Luck!

Polish friend:  You'll be back in a year.

All of my American friends are thinking, "wow, those Poles are mean jerks, why would you even want a Polish friend?" And my new (although might not want to be my friend (s) anymore) Polish friends are thinking, "hey, we're not that mean, we don't sound like that!"

The truth my friends is that Poles are not mean, I do like many Polish people, and yes, Poland, you do sound like that. Sorry, it's just the truth.*

Being raised in America means you are raised with American sensibilities. You learn from an early age that it is rude and can be hurtful to be blunt and upfront. You only say exactly what you mean at times of high emotion. Otherwise you do what I like to call, "padding". You pad your feelings and reactions with words that will ease the criticism or contradiction you are about to unleash. Americans know how to do this and, more importantly, they expect others to do this. America is a huge country. Most people will only encounter other cultures on vacation, if that. Americans are used to dealing with other Americans. We all know how this works. We are experts at, what I like to call, DIPLOMACY (see above for definition). And we expect this same kind of diplomacy in return.

Enter the Pole.

Poles tell you exactly what they mean and they say it exactly how it pops into their heads. There is no padding any where and quite often what they have to say will hit you like a ton of bricks.. This is just the way it is. It is not because they are mean.  On the contrary, Poles, as a whole, are extremely welcoming and warm people. Incredibly helpful to foreigners and eager to make things easier for you when they realize you are new and out of your comfort zone. All that being said, they can sometimes come across as abrupt, abrasive, or at the very least, insensitive. It is not their intention I am sure. It just is the way they talk.

My only criticism being on both sides of this incredibly interesting difference between the two cultures is that they are somewhat incompatible... unless... they give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume the best of one another. (surely a lot of situations in the world would better if we all did this a bit more, but here we are). If I assume that every Pole that has ever said something to me in this unfiltered and sometimes harsh manner was trying to hurt me, or take their comment personally, I would never have been able to marry Martin, and I certainly wouldn't be living in this country. Now, when a comment or reaction comes quickly out of nowhere, I inwardly laugh. Oh, how this would sound to another American who hasn't had all the practice I have had over the past few years! You have no idea! And, most of the time, I just resume conversation and tuck that one (or two) comment away and ponder/laugh over it later. Likewise, Poles have to remember that Americans do expect this, so don't be too alarmed when they call you out on it and expect an explanation of your attitude, or at the very least, give you a cold shoulder now and then. You've hurt them. You don't know why, but trust me, it was probably something you said. Not what you said, but how you said it.

Neither way is better of course. Before I was seasoned I was sure that the Polish way of speaking was just incredibly forward and direct, sometimes even rude. Surely they know how that sounds to other people! But if you think about it, figuring out what Americans are trying to say half the time, and not knowing if you were actually just complimented or insulted, could be really frustrating for an outsider. Get to the point, America!

So, I offer a solution. When you are talking to an American, do them a favor and try not to be quite so... direct. It hurts our delicate sensibilities. And for us Americans... lighten up! It only stings the first couple of times. After that, you become immune. ;)

 IRONY: *Disclaimer, to ease Martin's sensibilities... OBVIOUSLY, this is not true for EVERY Pole. Some Poles can beat around the bush just as well as an American, and I have heard from plenty of Americans who can't hold their tongue. Obviously  it is not ALL, and EVERY, or any of that other such nonsense. Generalizations are...and that is Clash of Cultures.


  1. :DDD it's so funny :))) you're right, we are terribly mean to each other, and grumpy! I lived for three years in UK and I so much miss the politeness (even tho it was not always honest and no one actually cares how are you, even if this is the first thing they ask :D)
    What surprised me is that - seriously someone told you "you're fat"? I am on the other side, looking half human with my weight, and I know from my experience people will rather tell me I am professional anorectic :D but usually we don't tell people that they are fat (we do later behind their backs, this is why I am moving to Czech Republic :D).
    Good luck here, don't worry too much :)

    btw I know one American guy, he is as harsh as you say about Polish people :D I thought it was American sense of humor (or it's lack ;P)

    btw 2 - pardon my English :)

    1. No one told me I am fat, although I have been told that if I want to be healthier I need to eat more fat. ?? More so, I will get things like "that is a bad idea", "what you have said is untrue" "you do not know what you are talking about" "these eggs are no good" etc. etc. It's just an overall tendency to just comment forth whatever one is thinking and in the most blunt of terms. No one actually means any offense. It is just the way things are spoken. I know this and yet sometimes I am still caught off guard.:)

      I think, after reflection, the part that irks me the most about it is that perfect strangers are assuming much more familiarity than they "should" in the way they are speaking to me. And family does nothing to spare your feelings either. It can make you feel like a child UNLESS you know that they are not meaning to treat you this way, this is just the way they talk.

  2. Great post and how true - you got me laughing! I have retained some of that Polish "charm" and reserve it for people I know well, and my husband's family finds it hilarious. Otherwise, I try to soften my blows as much as I can ;).

    BTW, I noticed that your blog started to attract an increasing number of trolls.

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  4. So, it sounds like adult Poles have similar manners to American 5-year-olds, yes? (i.e. "hey mister, you have a fat tummy!")

    1. Well, yes, sort of, but with more sophisticated topics. ;) It's not always what they say, it's HOW they say it. Just completely unexpected sometimes. But you have to take it with good humor or you would just think everyone hated you.

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  7. Seriously? in this case the Netherlands would be real hell for you :D Poles are nothing with the direct critisism comparing to the Dutch. even we have sometimes problems to deal with them.
    I understand It's a part of the culture, but what you call diplomacy for me sounds more like not hearing the truth at all while you actually asked for it. It's important to know how to accept critisism. I guess the best wa is to meet somewhere in half way ;)

    1. Exactly, right, somewhere in the middle. Coming from the South you are basically taught from a young age, through the culture, that you never directly criticize. Instead you choose your words as to get your point across without ever directly saying anything harsh. That sounds silly, and sometimes it is incredibly dumb. But there's a reason for it and there is an art to it to be sure, but it comes as second nature to most of us. Why do you think Americans come back from Europe and half the time they say people are rude? It's just a different culture. And it takes much more than just a short trip to really understand I think. Americans don't actually mean "how are you?" when they say that. But Americans know that, it's just a greeting. But in Poland, when you ask someone how they are, you better be ready for a complete list of all the good and bad. It's just different.

      As for actually asking for the truth... if you ask for it, you expect to get it, just not in a straight forward response all the time. You still get the truth, just in a more round about way.

  8. Excellent observation, especially taking 'How are you?' literally. Many times I have regretted asking a gloomy-looking colleague on a Monday morning...

    1. We do't just take literally :). If we ask, we DO want to know, we don't say how are you just for some blabling :). I believe that many people from Poland were disappointed in UK in the very first days, somebody asks how are you and turn their back when you just open your mouth :D.
      Personally I only ask if I want to know, if that person is close friend, if not - I just say hi, like many of us I suppose...
      After some time in UK you just say how are you and go your way, nobody really wants to know :) - there is something like adjustment - there is no country that will adjust to every single foreigner, you have to adjust to the situation, else you will suffer.
      You consider us taking literally how are you as bad - why bad? Different does not mean bad ;)

  9. I'll try to think more before saying. :D

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    2. This is funny, because I did think of you when I was writing this but not because you have offended me or anything but because you do speak this way. Very straight forward and direct. Luckily we have not had any major disagreements. I would be afraid! ;)

      No, I think we know each other well enough now that you can tell me how it is and I can tell you how it is. I am more thinking about strangers, or acquaintances. I would expect YOU to tell me the truth, no "padding".

    3. Fortunately, you are thin and you have no weird hat. :D

      I have weird hats with ears, so you can try to get revenge. ;)

      I don't know if it's comforting but I would never say anyone he/she look fat. :D I would tell him/her that he/she look's not very good (fat sounds rude ;)) - just because if someone asks me, I assume that he/she could blame me later that I didn't tell him/her truth and now everybody is making fun of him/her in this swim suit. :P

  10. We've learned to live with "a nie mowilam"... we try not to let it drive us nuts.

    Get ready for opinions from the folks that come work on your house... You'll hear a lot of "you're doing this wrong," "that's a waste of money," "that's too big," "too many windows," etc.

    Happy Friday!

    1. Oh yeah! When I'm thinking about my recently builded house, I have a fever when builders emerge in my mind. :D It was always: "The previous guy did this wrong!", and "It couldn't be done" (read: I don't know how and I don't want to think about it), and "I know better what you want". :D

    2. Oh my goodness, we already have that and only about 4 people have actually seen the plans, half of them family. You're right. I haven't even thought about that. Crud. Gonna have to make a t-shirt and wear when I go to the building site.

      It'll say: "Jestem szef. Zamknac buzia i otwierac uchy." (I am chief/boss. Close your mouth and open your ears).

      I'm sure they'll all love that. Although, maybe I'm too nice for that job. ;)

    3. Witek, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. Lots of big windows, high ceilings, not "Polish looking".... the list will be long. It's gonna be fun!

    4. Should be: "Jestem szefem." That grammatical ending is "instrumental" (Polish=dopel*niacz) or the 7th/ablative/ablativus in Latin, although there are some differences in usuage between the Polish and the Latin.

      This grammatical case system is beautiful. Your children would learn this starting in elementary school in Poland. I thought you might appreciate the system due to your study of religion in high school/college, which I'd have thought included Latin. Good luck!

  11. My Polish mother-in-law, may she rest in peace, used to hit me with the ol' "nie elegansko" when she didn't approve of my clothes. It hurt, but she was right. I still don't know how to dress...

    1. Yes, and I'm sure she loved you. She just couldn't help herself...

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  13. Buahahahahahah!!! Oh my... I'm so sorry, I can't stop laughting.

    First of all - sorry for my English. I understand well, but when it comes to writing or speaking... my teacher would probably commit suicide. Nevermind that.

    I just realized that we DO sound like that. I never thought it can be so... harsh for the others. But! I still prefer getting to the point. For us it's pointless to beat around the bush and the hardest truth is still the best. I remember asking my friend once how did I looked (when trying new trousers). The answer was like: "Yeah, sure, they suit you!". Well... I asked where were her glasses 'cause she deffinitelly couldn't see me. ;)

    I'm enjoying your blog. It's good to read about my country & ppl from your point of view. :-)


    1. Friends should always let you know if your "butt looks fat in that pair of jeans", I don't care how they say it. Otherwise, they are not a true friend. ;)

      Thanks for reading the blog. Have patience with me. I thought I knew what I was in for...

    2. Olivia, I absolutely LOVE your blog. Always be honest. :-)


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  16. Olivia: sorry to read that you feel this way but I can assure you that tactful Poles can distinguish between direct and rude. Or between direct and insensitive. Tactful Pole would never answer as you presented in the examples. I would never ever do that. That is not the way I was raised (in Poland). And nobody of my Polish family or friends does that. Doesn’t mean that I don’t know rude people but putting an equal sign for rude and average Pole doesn’t seem to be fair.

    And yes, is it very tricky to deal with cultural differences. Navigating among the nuances of words, translation, their true meaning, context, tone, attitude, intentions and some more can lead to misinterpretation.

    Please remember that many people you are meeting never got a chance to experience American culture. They don’t know anything about these unspoken rules in communication you are referring to. Expecting any person to adjust to something they don’t know about might not be realistic.
    It is interesting and surprising what you’ve written: America is a huge country. Most people will only encounter other cultures on vacation, if that. Americans are used to dealing with other Americans.
    I’ve always thought about America as of melting pot. And no other nation has a better opportunity to be exposed for other cultures since there is a constant stream of immigrants from other countries. I’ve met people from all around the globe here and as we’ve discussed our differences, we’ve also found many similarities including the way we express opinions :)

    I agree that diplomacy is a tactful negotiation between nations – which means there is no assumption that one nation’s way is the only way. It requires understanding, compromise and adjustment of all of them. Meeting at the mid-point is a great idea!

    1. Dobrze napisane, Agata :) Poza tym - nigdzie, w żadnym kraju nie jest tak, żeby ludzie byli tylko źli, albo tylko dobrzy. Wyjazd za granicę to jest też sprawdzian dla samego siebie :)

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    3. ok, so I had a long response written up...

      anyway, the gist...

      My examples were supposed to be funny! :) (and I only used the word "rude" once. This was intentional as not everything Poles say sounds rude, most of the time it's just so frank that it's surprising, but every once in a while...)

      It is Clash of Cultures after all. My culture *clashing* with another culture. It's not always gonna sound pretty. ;)

      You gotta have a sense of humor when you're leaving Polish Mass, (in the States) and the first woman to chat with you over doughnuts says, "you've gained too much weight this pregnancy". I mean come. on. :P (my response was, of course, to stuff the rest of the doughnut in my mouth to avoid sticking my American tongue out at her...mmm...doughnuts...)

      Thank you for the comment! It always helps to have many perspectives, especially for my readers you read the com box. This way we get both sides of the story. ;)

  17. Olivia, simple answer is: that lady was rude. I would have choke myself with a piece of that doughnut hearing such a comment. Or become speechless. Rather speechless ;)

    All your observations are very interesting and I enjoy reading them. I realize that this blog is also a place to vent and there are a lot of frustrations to deal with. And I agree that a sense of humor is a godsend in such circumstances.

    Warm regards from snowy Chicago!

    1. hi ladies, I couldn't agree more. that lady was simply rude & she should not be even considered in here..
      the thing is, just as with generalizations, it's never just black or white.
      the same goes for Poles. there's just so many of us, with different heritage... saying that we ALL are outspoken & brutally honest is simply wrong.

      Then again, I have been told by a fellow Lithuanian (of all people:-) that in EU dimplomacy (I live in Brussels) there's apparently an expression 'Polish diplomat' which describes a politician who's blunt & always says what they mean.

      among my closest family & friends we can be honest & say what we really mean. But to tell someone that they look fat is just a bit too much. People like that exist in all cultures & need to be educated, I think.

      I've lived in many different places, one of them being NYC & trust me, those people are NOT nice.haha
      but guess what, you get to appreciate it after a while & know exactly what they mean.

      Oh, and don't even get me started on the Spaniards lol. They are a crazy bunch ALWAYS telling you your hair looks funny or that you gained weight...

      I think if we travel & open up to other cultures, we discover that there's more than one way of looking at things. We notice that not only one way is the right way.

      hugs from Brussels, should I tell you about the Belgians? that would be quite a culture shock, I'm afraid...

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  19. In my experience, it's not so much that Poles are mean or abrupt... it's more along the lines of "direct" or even "specific." Topics that are taboo in the U.S. are much more fair game here: who you voted for, how much you paid for something, what (exactly) your doctor told you, etc. These come up in the States, but only after some serious beating around the bush (and even then you'll often get a vague response). Here, many people go right to the point.

    Which brings me to my second thought: this may be more of an observation of American behavior than Polish. I can't claim intimate knowledge of other nations but based on second-hand information (including some comments above) it seems this directness may not be unique to Poles. Perhaps Americans are more reserved? Maybe they've inherited some English tradition here? Can anyone compare US/UK in this area?

    Either way, I agree that meeting in the middle is best: get to the point, just give me a *little* bit of warning (and be OK with the occasional directional response).

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  21. Nie wiem czy zrozumiesz, ale napiszę po polsku :)
    Uważam, że lepiej usłyszeć prawdę niż miłe kłamstwo. Osobiście bardzo doceniam szczerość - szczególnie u przyjaciół. Oczywiście nie chodzi mi o obrażanie kogoś, ale wyrażenie swojej opinii :)

    Ps. I read all your posts and I love you :D I didn't know about all the cultural differences between America and Poland. I really admire you :)

    1. I prefer a stright forward answer sometimes too. It can be refreshing to know that when you sit down to talk to a Pole that they will just say what they mean. It's difficult to get used to sometimes, but it's good if you know what to expect.

      Thanks for commenting!

  22. Czasami naprawdę jesteśmy niemili i okrutni. To taka gra - przegrywa ta osoba, która pierwsza zacznie płakać.
    Jednak nie wydaje mi się, żeby Ameryknom była ona obca.

    sorry - its to difficult for me to try write it correctly in English..

    1. Martin says this doesn't happen with guys. Guys just fight and then become friends, nobody cries. ;)

      Sure, Americans are familiar with it, we just deliver our hurt in an entirely different way. ;)

  23. OMG! This explains everything. It took me decades to understand what my friends meant when they said that I said things that were hurtful and abrasive, though they couldn't quite articulate it this well or give a good example. I was always wondering what they were talking about because most of the time, when I did get an example out of their mouths, it wasn't something I had meant to be insulting or offensive. I was usually just trying not to sugar coat or BS.

    I guess you need to account for a third condition: American of Polish Decent where the american is first generation and strongly influenced by Polish "sensabilities".

    1. Very true! And this is the hardest group to navigate! He sounds like an American but he speaks like a Pole...hmmm....

      A hybrid? And therefore you have a responsibility to be accountable to both? ;)

  24. A very interesting entry! Could you give a few more comparative examples? I’m curious about the American code of behavior!

    1. Real life examples which I think illustrate the difference and convey the "American way"...

      Poles will ask straight out how much things cost...
      "how much did you pay for your car?"
      "how much are you paying for insurance?"
      "how much did that ____ cost you?"

      Americans will very rarely, if ever, do this. It is considered impolite to ever ask people how much they paid or something...
      "can you give me a ballpark figure as to how much something like this costs?"
      "roughly how much would you say someone spends on a car like this?"
      "around how much money did you spend, if you don't mind me asking?" (can only be asked between good friends, you may offer the exact price if you are willing)

      Poles will ask about your health right after doctor's visit...
      "What's wrong with you?"
      "What medication dd he prescribe?"
      "What kind of tests are you having done?"

      Americans, again, never ask straight out what is wrong...
      "oh, I hope it's nothing serious!" (which really means, "tell me it's nothing serious, better yet, tell me what's wrong")
      "well, I'm sure whatever the doctor thinks is best will be fine" (which really means, "what did he prescribe you and what tests is he doing?")

      Other personal matters... these are fun

      "That haircut doesn't look good" (not trying to be rude, just honest)
      "Those clothes are not flattering"
      "You look tired"

      "Wow, what an interesting haircut! I could never pull that off!" (which means it looks crazy, maybe even bad, and they are glad they are not you)
      "That dress is cute but it doesn't "do you justice" (which means it isn't flattering)
      "You seem a little down lately, are you getting enough rest?" (you look tired)

      All of the above examples are actual things that have been said to me by Polish people, only a couple of them family. (just so you know I'm not pickin' on Martin's family) The American responses are things that have been said to me at one time or another by Americans or what I can imagine an American would say in similar setting. I have done my best not to exaggerate because I think in real life this is more exactly how it is. As my examples in the original post are really supposed to be a bit more silly.

      My all time favorite, in a list of all time favorites, is when I was about one month post-partum with my second child. Outside of Polish Mass, in Austin, one of the women walked up to me and said, "Wow, he is so adorable. How are your nipples?"



      I was shocked that she had just asked me that. Not offended, but really shocked. What an odd and very personal thing to ask someone.... She was concerned and empathizing with me about nursing a new baby and remembering what it was like for her. Sweet sentiments...rather surprising delivery. ;)

      I think, in the end, it is this feeling that there are fewer boundaries as to what you can ask someone or say in conversation. If you are conversing with them then everything is fair game. (this is how it seems, but I think that's also, again, because of my sensibilities) This is not because Polish people are rude, it's just the way people talk. Americans are just the opposite. Even in conversation, you do your best not to be too direct, so as not to offend, or "put your foot in your mouth". Everyone expects that and responds accordingly. They are not lying, they are not trying to get out of telling the truth, they just want to make sure they don't offend. In Poland people just don't get offended by this direct way of talking so people don't have to worry about being direct or asking personal questions. It is expected and so people respond accordingly.

    2. Also, and I have to add this, because I think it's applicable.... Poles don't really have a strong of a sense of "minding your own business". Family knows everything about you and expects you to want to give the information. Friends know intimate details about health concern and financial holdings. This just isn't the same in America. Of course you can be intimate with others, but it's not a "given", even with family. You offer information, other people don't ask for it. If you don't offer it, then that means you don't want to talk about it, or don't want to share information. In Poland, they just ask. You can refuse to answer, but that's a little awkward sometimes and can lead to hurt feelings or misunderstandings.

  25. Thank you so much for the extensive response! It must have taken you a lot of time to write it all! I greatly appreciate it!

    1. Perhaps this is what I should have written in the first place. Sometimes I can write more AFTER the post because it makes me think.