Friday, August 19, 2016

A Few Cultural Differences

Even a month in a different country seems not long enough to make reliable generalizations, so instead, allow me to make a few observations about the cultural differences concerning how people act, Americans vs. Poles.

Before we embarked on pilgrimage, Iwona, our Polish missionary to America leader, discussed how Poles tend to see Americans, generally speaking, and one adjective she mentioned was "friendly." A few weeks into the trip, this came back into my memory. When I first heard it, I sort of internally shrugged and thought, "Ok, whatever." But as I was in Poland, it dawned on me that there would be a flip side American impression: Poles are rude.

Hold on. Let me finish.

I think I came to this conclusion mostly because of walking on populated streets. I tried again and again to make eye contact and smile or nod hello. Not a taker. This is not unlike my experience of Japanese culture (although when I lived there I got a lot of stares from almost everyone for being a young white woman). It is probably not unlike any culture where as soon as you step outside your door, you are in public. It is a way of coping with little sense of space or privacy, and so you make it by essentially ignoring the people around you. I understand it. But it is not the American way I'm used to. In my town at least, there are so few people about that eye contact and a smile or nod or an explicit "hello," if not some actual comment and greeting, is the polite thing to do. To not do it is reserved to desperate types, the ones who seem hard and sad.

My dilemma is that by nature I am far more the person who wants to just walk past and not make eye contact. By my internalized social conditioning and sense of social guilt, I am the one smiling and saying "hello." So when I found I was getting nowhere with greeting Poles this way, I stopped. Then I felt a little horrible and wrong. I have yet to find a culture that feels natural to me all the way around.

There were a few other exchanges that, while they didn't strike me as rude exactly, did strike me as occasions that simply would not happen in the US.

The first happened on our first day going around Wroclaw. A large group of us went into a cafeteria-type restaurant where orders were placed and paid for, and then food was gathered in another area. We had a group of Polish teenagers with us who were supposed to be helping us figure out what to order, since the menu on the wall was all in Polish.

We were slow to work out the options and slow to decide. The woman at the cashier got quite upset and showed it. She wanted us to hurry up, and to stop blocking her fan. We were clearly being annoying customers.

Another woman gave me my food. My daughter had ordered lemonade, and this woman also got a bit grumpy that we didn't know the difference between carbonated lemonade and non-carbonated lemonade. We took our food to the outdoor seating as quickly as we could.

I double-checked later with one of the Polish teenagers. "She seemed mad at us. Was she mad at us?" Oh yes, she was, she affirmed.

Americans who like to stay in business just wouldn't dream of grumping at customers like that and would instead of course do what they could to be helpful. Then again, most Americans who got grumped at would walk out and not come back. We were a bit at the mercy of the cheap food.

Another exchange that was as amusing as it was surprising was in a museum in Krakow, where due to a small problem I developed the need to borrow someone's cell phone at the entrance desk. I turned to the woman in charge of storing over-sized backpacks.

Me: "Could you help me?"
She: "No."

It was later suggested to me that probably the woman simply did not speak English, and I surmised this as well. But again. Can you imagine any American setting where someone is asked for help and they simply are told "no," without some move to at least ask what the need was, to explain why help couldn't be offered, or to find someone who could help? Even if the ultimate answer actually was, "no"?

So I just told her "Oh.....kay...." and waited to speak to another woman I had heard using English. Made a mental note, of course, that her story would be retold any number of times...

I thought of all this just this morning as I went to my car and found the driveway we share with our neighbor blocked by a vehicle parked behind mine. I was in a bit of a rush, and knocked loudly on the front door, and then at the side door. A few minutes later, a bleary-eyed young college gent answered the door, trying not to make all of himself visible out the door.

Me: Sorry to bother you. I have kind of an urgent need to get out of the driveway, but there's a car blocking it.
He: Oh, you're fine! No problem! Oh, Yeah. I'll have him here in just a second and move that. Thanks!
Me: Thanks... (walking away, wondering why in the world he just said "thanks")

This is an American way to do a polite exchange that really masks being annoyed and completely flustered. It is also amusing, when you think about it.

I took a group of volunteers to the English-speaking center for one of our work slots. Upon arriving, I needed to find the head of volunteers, and so spoke to an American man at the Info Desk. It was also an interesting exchange. I asked him simply for contact with a certain person, but within a short time he had ferreted out the information that none of us had eaten lunch and that our passes for food would not work to feed anyone at that site, and he had offered to find extras so that we would not be hungry. I recognized this as the American tendency to Be Helpful. By that time, I had a feeling that no Pole would have inquired about our stomachs, and if I might have mentioned it, they might have told us how hardship was good for our souls, and that they had not eaten since last Tuesday. With all that said, I'm not placing a value judgment on American Taking Care. While I greatly appreciated it that day (we were handed 250PLN for food for 13 of us), there can be a point that Taking Care can be overdone, or over-expected into a sense of entitlement.

But beyond all that, I have to say that the Poles that I actually spoke with had the most wonderful, open hearts I have known. Americans that you first meet might give you their social best in the first five or ten minutes of knowing you, but it might take five or ten years to go any deeper than that. Most of the Poles I met seemed genuinely interested in significant conversation. Some began the exchange with describing their deeper conversion or their love for Jesus, and they instantly found their way into my heart. Even those who really struggled with English struggled enough to share some pretty vulnerable aspects of their lives.

So maybe Poles aren't really rude and Americans aren't really superficial. Maybe with St. Paul I agree the most: the only thing that matters is a new creation.


  1. The Polish woman who said No (or Nie) was speaking shorthand for "I don't understand". Wrong to take it personally or read too much into it.

  2. As I wrote, I did comprehend that she was trying to communicate that. I didn't write it to nurse a hurt (because there wasn't any) or to build a response to Poland based on her syllable. I did write it to share how her curt response struck me as a cultural difference. And certainly it is not "wrong" to see a cultural difference where there is one. If anything, I have always laughed when telling that story because it captures so well a difference I felt.