By Norman Davies
Notes from Poland is pleased to present the second of our exclusive extracts from the autobiography of Norman Davies (published in Polish by Znak), the leading international historian of Poland and senior consultant to the Notes from Poland Foundation. In this instalment, Professor Davies notes some of the biggest cultural differences between the people of Britain and Poland, including their queuing habits, responses to the weather, and use of formality. The previous extract, about his first experiences in communist Poland during the 1960s, can be read here.
Anyone who has been married to a person from another country knows that it is by no means linguistic issues or family complications that are the biggest problem. Husbands and wives always manage to express what they want to – aided by gesticulation and a little patience.
Much more consternation, and sometimes also irritation, comes from certain unwritten assumptions that we all make – often unwittingly – in our own culture, and that are often very hard to explain or tolerate.
Polish and British people, for instance, have different approaches to the weather. A Pole will get up in the morning, look out of the window and dress accordingly: hat or no hat; heavy, medium or light coat; boots, flat shoes or even sandals. Polish mothers are particularly pedantic, making sure that their children’s attire is a precise fit to the weather.
This seems utterly incomprehensible to the average Brit – we’re used to treating the weather with contempt, and dressing as we please (often the same way every day of the year). On snow-covered streets you might see teenagers in shirt sleeves, while London City workers head to the office in January with an umbrella but no coat, as if it were July.
The people of the United Kingdom have mastered the art of hiding the fact that they are shivering from the cold, and regard overdressing children as a form of abuse.
When my son Christian began attending school in Oxford, the pupils had a break every two hours to run around in the playground and get “a breath of fresh air”. The teachers made sure that none of the children ran out into the road, but they were unconcerned about whether they had a jacket or hat on – even in the middle of winter.
The headmistress dismissed a group of mothers who tried to protest as “overprotective”. Without exception, they came from Central Europe – one from Switzerland, another from Austria, and my wife Myszka from Poland.
And they didn’t give up, setting up a winter taskforce headquartered at the bus shelter outside the school gate – as soon as the teachers looked away, they’d mount an offensive with provisions of woollen hats and scarves.
Poles and Brits also differ greatly when it comes to queuing habits. Like most continental nations, Poles view queues as an optional and flexible concept. When they arrive last, they usually go to the end of the line, but it is not unheard of for them to slip in at the side or even to unceremoniously push in front of others.
British people, meanwhile, will stand stoically in their place, sometimes letting people with disabilities or pregnant women go first, but with the general view that an orderly queue is part of the divine plan on which civilisation is founded. In British eyes, queue-jumpers are no better than thieves or career criminals.
Other problems are caused by the innate differences between the Polish and the British stomach. Both Poles and Brits eat breakfast, but centuries of training have left Poles immune to hunger until two, three or even four in the afternoon, while the much weaker British tummy starts to rumble around noon, and needs to be fed by one o’clock at the latest.
When there was a suggestion to move lunch to the mid-afternoon, the British army refused to march. But Poles planning a schedule for British professors still cannot get used to this, and persist in arranging lectures for one o’clock or half past one – this is sandwich-eating time, which is just as hallowed a tradition as five o’clock tea.
Humans can be divided into those who think that the guest should enter a room first, and those who maintain that for a host to shove guests through the door in front of him is the height of bad manners. Poles are in the first group, and Brits in the second.
In the British psyche, the other side of the door is a terra incognita where danger lurks. This is why a tactful person goes in first, checks whether it is safe inside, and then holds the door for his guest to follow.
For some reason, Poles do not grasp this logic. In Poland, when a Polish-British group is approaching a building, the hosts stop a step away from the door as a matter of honour, while the Brits also come to a halt, because they’re the guests and they don’t expect to be sent into an unfamiliar place first. So everyone stands freezing outside, until one of the parties plucks up the courage to break their deeply rooted habits.
Perhaps surprisingly, Poles pay much more attention to hierarchy than Brits do. Although their aristocracy is no more, its place has been taken by a social order in which one’s job and professional status are paramount.
They are not satisfied with the fact that, in Polish, people address each other in the third person: “Sir is this” and “Madam is that”. Polish physicians, journalists and lawyers also expect everybody to call them by their titles: “Doctor”, “Editor” (for journalists) or “Counsellor” (for lawyers). Using any other form is simply rude, and using just Pan (“Sir” or “Mr”) to a priest is a terrible faux pas.
“Director”, “Professor”, “Master”: how can one remember all these titles? The British, like the Americans, abandoned all these distinctions centuries ago and simply use “you”, originally the plural informal form, like the Russians. We simply are not in the habit of recalling a given person’s title.
I must admit that I also struggle with this. The first time I met former Polish prime minister and president of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek, I addressed him as “Professor”, then “Prime Minister”, and finally “Mr President”. Which of these titles should be used? Perhaps all of them at the same time.
I am convinced that this rigid system of address is the reason for Poles’ belief that titles endow their holders with an aura of exceptionality. They are truly convinced that a professor must be intelligent. My wife says that the renowned literary historian Kazimierz Wyka once told her: “The stupidest people I ever met were professors.” I fully concur.
But what must a wife feel when she loses her title within the family circle? By calling her ty, the familiar “you” form, I am denying her full status. Just in case, then, I prefer to say: “Good night, Doctor.”
Norman Davies is the founder of the Project for Polish Studies Abroad, which aims to assist the development of Poland-centred studies at university level in countries outside Poland through the Fundacja Normana Daviesa.
Translated by Ben Koschalka.
Published with the kind permission of Wydawnictwo Znak.
Main image credit: Cambridge Polish Studies