Savoir-vivre is a French expression which literally means “knowing how to live”, and it encompasses all the good manners and etiquette rules. Nowadays more and more people question the purpose of following etiquette rules, which are considered “obsolete” or even “riddiculous”. You know, globalisation, feminists, gender equality etc. However, we do believe that some traditions are timeless, and will always be valuable. If you move to a foreign country – in this case to Poland – it would be a good idea to at least be aware of the basic etiquette rules. If you follow them, soon you will realise that people will be impressed and will treat you with more respect.
If you do not want to create an awkward situation, do not greet a person by kissing them on a cheek if you are meeting them for the first time. That might be difficult to adapt to, especially if you come from Latin America. Once you get to know them better, you may kiss them on the cheek: once (modern version) or three times (popular among older generations).
Also among the older people, it is still common for the men to kiss a woman’s hand. However, the most common greeting nowadays is just a simple handshake. Important: if you are a man and you want to greet a woman, never offer your hand first – wait for her to do it, as otherwise it is considered quite rude. If you’re young and you’re going to shake hands with an older person, the same rule applies – wait for them to offer you their hand first. Curious fact: in winter, take off you glove before shaking hands with anyone.
Being a guest at a Polish home
If you get invited by a Polish person, you should arrive on time. And by “on time” I mean literally “on time”, and not two hours late (“Oh that traffic…”). Arriving up to 15-20 minutes late is still acceptable, but arriving much later would simply be a lack of respect towards your host. Why? Usually if you’re invited to e.g. a dinner, there will be a hot meal waiting for you exactly at the agreed hour.
In the majority of Polish houses you will also be asked (or expected to) take off your shoes once you enter. This tradition is actually very practical – just think about the Polish autumn and winter with tons of mud or snow you’d leave all over the hosts floor (or carpets – Polish people love carpets). You might occasionally hear the host say: “Oh no, you may keep your shoes on”, but be careful – it might actually mean: “I’m just trying to be nice, but I still want you to take off your shoes”.
Should you bring a gift for a host? That usually would be a good idea – a box of chocolates would be the safest option, although bringing flowers (an odd number of them!) or a bottle of alcohol is also common.
At the table
No one expects you to eat everything, but you should at least try each dish. And be careful – what you might think is a main course, might in reality be just a starter, and you will have a hard time getting till the end of the dinner. Polish people sometimes get too persuasive, especially when it comes to eating and drinking. If for some reason you’d like to abstain from alcohol, be prepared to keep refusing, as the hosts will surely try to convince you to drink “just a little bit”.
If you cut your meat beforehand and then start eating using only the fork, your Polish hosts will definitely be surprised. Here in Poland, try to hold the knife in your right hand and fork in your left hand at all times. Once you finish eating, place the knife and fork parallel to each other across your plate. When eating, do not place your elbows on the table. You also shouldn’t pour alcohol into your own glass – ask someone else to do it for you.
Other etiquette rules:
- it is considered rude to talk to people with your hands in your pockets
- in public transport, give up your seat to the elderly people and pregnant women
- open and hold doors for women / elderly people
- shaking hand through a doorway is considered to bring bad luck
- it is polite to say “dzień dobry” (hello) to your neighbours and “do widzenia” (goodbye) when exiting the elevator
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