Why Polish people don’t smile – explanation 1


Many foreigners asked about their first impressions of life in Poland note the fact that people in the street don’t smile. I even read that American English teachers are warned before coming to this country, that “people don’t show emotions”.

Even though I was born in Poland, and therefore I am supposed to know this country inside-out, I could never actually get to the bottom of this.

That might be due to the fact I never had to deal with state institutions.

Until two weeks ago, that is. During that time I was given the chance to embrace on a new set of feelings: helplessness, confusion, humiliation and despair. Smiling in the street would be the very last thing on my mind. And most people have to deal with bureaucracy on a regular basis. This experience made me realise the whole system, the whole working of things is in a desperate need of a major reform.

I should also add, I cannot describe here all aspects of the matter, however reading this you should get the general idea.

This is the story:

My grandmother got very ill and was taken to a hospital. (As she was alone at her house at that time, and could barely talk in the moment when she called 112, it was a miracle the ambulance arrived on time). These things can happen suddenly, especially when you’re 85, and you have a list of diseases covering a whole page of fancy latin text.

It turned out, among many other things, that she won’t walk, and that the urinary tract won’t work properly, any more. You would think hospital would have adult nappies for their patients – but no. The procedure for obtaining nappies includes
1. Visit at her health centre to which she is registered, in the hours 7am – 3pm, and waiting 20 minutes at the registration desk
2. Going to a doctor, who needs to write a piece of paper, put his stamp on it (1 hour waiting time)
3. Taking the piece of paper to the state health insurer (NFZ) where they need to put their stamp proving that she indeed is insured (although as a pensioner she automatically is!)
4. Going to the pharmacy and buying the nappies for 30% of the price for the uninsured
5. Bringing them to the hospital

Completing this takes 2-3 days, and if you have any commitments connected with work, studying, family, relationships, or, let’s say fitness, you better forget about them. And this, of course is just one of the things you need to do.
You are also, for instance, required to pick the sick person’s shirt(s) everyday for washing, which you are expected to do at home. The fact that you have your own life to run as well, is of no importance, and no one will ever spare a silly thought that the hospital could actually deal with this.

Washing patients, or changing their nappies, is a delicate matter. But it is something that has to be done. Generally hospital staff will wait for patient’s family to perform these tasks. And only do it when having absolutely no other option. My grandmother, however, didn’t want my mum or any other family member to do it. She has always been a little reserved, courteous, and she’s just probably desperate to hold to the last piece of dignity by the skin of her teeth. Nurses would wash her only before the doctors examination in the morning. Which means patients could just lie out there in their own excrement without anyone to bother. And you can’t even complain, because (1) you’re expected to do it by yourself, and (2) complaining at the hospital is not the best thing to do.
Since, as it was recognised, grandmother’s state will not get any better, she decided she wanted to go to a care home, where she would have assistance at all times and medical help whenever needed. She asked us to arrange for that.

Getting a comprehensive and reliable information on the procedure for making such an arrangement has proven almost impossible. Each institution gave us contradicting and confusing advice. The doctor, who’s available at the hospital in the early hours only, sent us to the chief nurse. The chief nurse sent us to hospital’s social nurse. Who said hospital cannot help in this situation, as they participate in finding care homes only for those who are in a coma, have a cancer or have no family. It’s not like they cared or anything. And she sent us to the health centre where grandma was registered.

On the next morning, getting another day off work, my mum was told at grandma’s health centre that they don’t have the proper forms, but she will find them at a care home. At the care home, they said it wasn’t them, and that she should go to the social services.
One thing they told us. The price. It turns out regulations changed and a person is no longer admitted to a communal care home in exchange for their pension, like it used to be. Now there’s a fixed price of 2000 zł per month. Grandma’s pension is 800. She’s a homeowner and pays monthly bills of 400. Someone would have to take another full time job to cover for it, when you add medications and other stuff. A cheaper option is a private care home run by grumpy Catholic nuns. 1100 zł. Fair enough.

Another day passes, and I go to the social services (Miejski Ośrodek Pomocy Rodzinie – literally ‘communal institution for helping families’) which surprisingly happens to be placed in the city outskirts (how convenient for the poor!). Walking there I felt like going back in time to a communist relic. As there was no receptionist, or reception for that matter, I wondered where to turn with my inquiry as all departments listed on the wall had very similar names. Inside it quickly turned out it was not them who are to help me, but it is me who is supposed to know exactly what, where and how I was supposed to do. I met the officer who was extremely rude, gave me no information whatsoever, and referred me to the hospital’s social nurse “who will arrange everything for you”. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening and that my taxes go for this. Did they ever help a family here? It was obvious he had no interest in talking with me, so I left promising myself I’ll file a complaint or talk about this on city mayor’s next public meeting (which of course I didn’t).

A hint from a friend suggested that care home could be arranged by health centre’s social nurse. But not the health centre grndma used. The health centre in the catchment area of which she lived. It couldn’t surprise anyone that the social nurse there is available only from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Finally we obtained the forms. The forms however needed to be filled by her GP and few other people so it’s the merry-go-round again. Her GP however – you see – has no record of her hospital treatment. The doctor at the hospital refused to produce a paper for the GP. And by then I almost exploded.

The doctor at the hospital was certain we wouldn’t be able to find a place at a care home and was ready to release grandma home after a week and a half. In a terrible hurry we bought a special bed, set of medical blankets, etc. as it seemed we’d be taking care of her for at least some time.

However we managed to secure a place in a superb hospice nearby using an “unofficial” way (please let me keep the details to myself).

The hospital doctor didn’t expect that. With a very surprised face he asked “how did you do that” and hurried to do some additional tests, blood transfusions, and stuff, and kept her few days longer in the hospital. Which made everyone wonder: how come she was “ready” to be signed off home – and not ready to be signed off to a place where other doctors work… Was he signing her so that she died home and not ruin hospital statistics?

When you’re in bad health you might want to settle your earthy matters. Write a testament, transfer property ownership etc. In Poland to do that you need a notary public, called notariusz. I thought there will be no problem: you pay and they serve. Oh how was I wrong! I can’t find one, who would be ready to come to the hospice and perform their duties. Notariusz is a strictly licensed profession, numbers of new people getting access to this profession is very limited. Imagine: a guarantee of monopoly and massive income. Each property sale needs to be done before a notary public who receives somewhat 2% of the transaction. They have many clients, and don’t give a damn. Most of the ones I talked to weren’t even trying to be polite. That was yet another surprise for me. They are educated lawyers, they should be the leaders of a positive change. Yet their power corrupted them.

This whole story really made me think… Is there is absolutely no one who will help you in Poland when you really have a problem? How many people face things like that daily, and why doesn’t anything change? Is it because most of them are powerless and have no idea about their rights, like most of the social services clients? Or are they simply used to it?

Why do state institutions care only about having papers fine when another state institution comes to control; about appearing to be doing work, not about really doing it?

Is this only me thinking that it can’t be like that anymore? Is this only me thinking the state is for helping citizens, not for obstructing their daily business with endless paperwork, and “necessary” things, signatures, stamps… to obtain from a number of offices. Is this IMPOSSIBLE to keep the country running without the tsarist-like administration?

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23 thoughts on “Why Polish people don’t smile – explanation 1

  1. When I first came to Poland and encountered stuff like this …and then bitched about it to everyone… I invariably heard, “welcome to Poland!”

    However, it’s not always like this.

    I did meet a few fairly helpful people at the visa/passport office. It’s the usual not-very-convenient Polish government office but they weren’t too rude except for one person I met at one time who said even Turkish people spoke better English or at least more understandable English.

    The people at the marriage office weren’t UNhelpful… but I wouldn’t call them helpful either. They only made my wife cry once.

    The people at the post office are never, ever helpful. They’re quite good at being surly, fat and stamping papers though. I only yelled at someone once when they asked how come my passport didn’t have my home address in it (I didn’t have my residency card at that time).

    The police have been good two times out of three. The first time they asked for a bribe about 50 meters from the police station but finally believed my wife and I that I didn’t have any cash on me at that time but that if I went and got some it would be to pay the fine, not for the bottle of cognac they wanted. The other two times I got stopped for various minor traffic offenses I’ve been let go with a warning.

    The tax office is basically ok, but suffers from a really good inconvenience: the ground-level floor is where all the clerks receive various customers and their paperwork but if you want a copy (or, rather, will need a copy because you’ve just been told you have to have a copy) you need to go to the sub-basement. Putting a copier where all the papers are at must have seemed far too obvious.

    The transportation/motor vehicles office involves a bit of walking up and down flights of stairs and standing in long queues with grubby registration plates waiting for the one person (pray she doesn’t get hit by a bus!) to answer your question as to what queue you actually ought to be standing in. Or waiting for her to get back from wherever it is she’s disappear to. But in the end you only end up spending a few hours there.

    Oh I forgot one thing. The actual police station isn’t too bad either and isn’t any more depressing or grubby than the local hospital. It’s harder to find, though. My translator that they assigned me was exceedingly good and quite sympathetic which was nice.

    In all fairness, there are plenty of very, very badly run private enterprises here, too. And there are some really, really, really amazingly well-ran places. I think it’s down to whether or not the people involve care about what they’re doing or not. I also think a person’s age has a lot to do with it. In general, anyone much over the age of 30 that works for the government in some way is probably a bit soulless or at least gormless.

    PS: if you move anywhere else* you’ll trade this set of problems for a whole new set.

    * Even Norway, I think.

  2. scatts says:

    Sorry to hear about your Grandma, Pawel.

    I’ve had mixed experiences with these places. I try to put it in perspective by looking at the conditions in which they have to work and what they are paid to do it. It doesn’t always work, some of them are just plain nasty people. Hospitals, nurses, and the Post Office seem to get the most consistently bad reviews.

    The other thing that always helps me in these situations is the knowledge that no matter how much crap they are throwing at you, you know that in the end you will get what you need.

    My impression of the UK is that there is less crap, but it is harder to get the right end result if you don’t have exactly what you are supposed to have.

  3. Wiosanna says:

    I agree with scatts. People are poorly paid. I met bad and good doctors, nurses, etc. I think that is also problem with adjusting to place you work. Many people don’t know about their rights in public services, but they don’t know about rights in place of work. I often seen people who didn’t thought they could do something more not harming themselves and helping others.

  4. guest says:

    Here in Germany the bureaucracy is not better than in Poland. Maybe less “crap” but more arrogancy and if you do something too late ,for example registration at the city hall you have to pay a lot of money, and if you do not do it you go to prison. Germany is still like a prussian military state…

    btw. for 2000zl per month they would not even wash your grandma here in germany…

  5. Tozznok says:

    Throughout my brief experience of living in France I encountered the same kind of problem, and it has been that way in France for a long time; even George Orwell wrote about “bureaucracy in the Latin countries” in the 1930s. Britain is unfortunately going the same way, and has been doing so for years. Hopefully someone in Poland will eventually be bright enough to fight against this kind of institutional sloth. I’m patiently waiting for that to happen in Britain!

  6. baduin says:

    Miejski Ośrodek Pomocy Społecznej (Rodzinie) actually has a duty to find a place for your grandmother in Dom Pomocy Społecznej, which costs 70% of pension. It is, however, theoretically designed for less serious cases. Additionally waiting time tends to be long, and since the city has to pay the remainder of the price they try to dissuade people from applying.

    1100 per month is very cheap, in fact probably below costs. Only Church institutions can offer so low prices, since they usually contribute from their own resources.

  7. Pawel says:

    Brad Zimmerman, thanks for commenting, and sharing your wonderful experiences of contacting with Polish state:)
    You are right there are many badly run private businesses. But there’s at least a choice and we can use the ones that work well:)

    And you’re right:) I can say to myself, if I lived in Norway it would have been cold an boring. It’s never perfect I guess;))

    The age thing tends to be misleading though. At the customs office the fifty-somethings have been most helpful and competent….

  8. Pawel says:

    scatts, it is nice of you to take into account the working conditions… but I can’t really see this as an excuse for people working there. everyone has some work to do, and – the way I see it – they have to do it well.
    a bad car mechanic could have some people killed. you can’t sometimes repair cars well and sometimes badly.

    Why then should office workers be excused when they do their work badly?

    They can find another job, especially when they think they’re too good for it.

    There were times that had worse work conditions than now and work still needed to be done. They are just incompetent lazy bastards raised by the wolves;)

  9. Pawel says:

    they signed a contract. If they don’t like their job and would prefer flipping burgers, they can go for it:)

    What would this country look like if everyone felt excused for doing their job badly, because they don’t get paid as they would like to?

  10. Pawel says:


    ooops, it means there is no escape… :)

  11. Pawel says:


    it may be statutory law, which absolves continental Europeans from thinking:)

    PS. I think even if there was such a bright person, no one would probably vote for them;))

  12. Pawel says:


    Thanks for your comment, however you are wrong:)

    (1) They apparently have no duties whatsoever…
    (2) They deduct 70% of the pension but you still have to pay the rest so that there is 2000 zł in total. So it’s not 70%, but 270% :)
    (3) There are all kinds of care homes for all kinds of cases, however there aren’t any free places
    (4) The city doesn’t have to pay anything. And my city certainly doesn’t. Maybe there is a city which covers the difference between 70% of pension and the cost of one person’s stay – but this is not the case here. On the plus side however, the city has a budget surplus of 12 million:] Cutting social expenses must appeal to the treasurer:)

    Church institutions don’t anything below costs. They must have found some way of getting state money in:)

  13. baduin says:

    As my work is overseeing some of those institutions, I can assure you that I am actually right – although I cannot summarize all rules in a few sentences.

    The family has to pay the full cost if they have relatively high income (are not dirt poor).

    City definitely should pay if the family does not, but forcing them to do so is very difficult and time-consuming. The free places are usually outside of the city. Most cities prefer their own institutions and try to avoid sending people outside.

    Church charitative institutions offer a lot of things below costs, and when they do receive state assistance, it is frequently lower than for equivalent secular institutions.

    BTW, many of the relevant city and state officers are paid worse than burger-flippers, others are paid relatively well. I haven’t noticed any correlation between pay and work quality. Generally few know the law regarding their own job, and no one at all knows the whole system (if there was a system to know, not a heap of uncoordinated institution).

  14. Nick says:

    this is the most ridiculous and racist generalisation I have ever heard…. I am not Polish, but my girlfriend is and I have met plenty of smily Polish people….
    Are people so insecure that they need everyone to smile at them to make themselves felt wanted ? This is a classic example of also wanting people to be how we want – its their country…. not USA, not UK…. of course people are different – how can you expect them to be how you would like ? this is an arrogant expectation to say the least … try living there for a few years and then make a judgment… going anywhere on vacation is no indication of a country’s people and culture.
    Take America for example – on the surface everything is superficially nice… but when I lived there for 3 months I was invited to no less than 22 barbeques and was never told a time and date by anyone ….. it seemed to me, that people wanted to “seem” nice….
    again, I am not saying an entire country is like this…. I also met many nice people in the 3 months who helped balance my view – but who the hell am I to judge an entire nation? am I perfect ? NO! is my country better than there’s – NO! Only different…..
    accept differences folks and try to submerse yourself in others cultures.

    I am not wanting to come over as all high and might – I just wanted to present an alternate view.

  15. island1 says:

    Nick: You idiot. Pawel, the author of this post, is Polish and has lived here all his life.

  16. Nick says:

    so what ? – does that give him the right ?

  17. Pawel says:

    thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Take note that what you refer to is not in fact the theme of my post.

    That doesn’t change however the fact, that I am entitled to my own opinion, just as you are. You can say I’m arrogant, but that doesn’t change what I think.

    1. If you think my generalisation is false, I advise to walk the streets in a Polish city and compare to any city in Britain.

    2. If you think I have no right to share my opinions – get a life.

    In my opinion life goes better when people are pleasant to one another. Even if it’s superficial.

  18. Gabriela says:

    After all these months, may I ask you how’s your grandma doing?
    Best regards from Peru.
    PS: bureaucracy is always the same, no matter where you are.

  19. Pawel says:

    !Hola Gabriela!

    I’m sure you’re right about the burreaucracy. I hope something still can be done with it:>

    My grandma is not that well actually (but alive). After months of her state being stabilised, her blood circulation problems have worsened, followed by her mental ability.

    She had to be removed from the hospice after 4 months, because state healthcare wouldn’t cover part of the costs of her stay there any more. And because she was making trouble. She never had an easy character, and she got rather disliked there.

    There were no free places in other constant care establishments in town at the time, she was transferred to a small town 3 hours from where we live. This is not so bad altogether, as it’s near to where she lived when she was young, and her friends in her age were able to pay her a visit.
    We are waiting for a free place in a medical care home run by Catholic nuns in our town though. She wanted to be there, so she will. Thank god they only want “civilian” papers and not some extra documents from the local parish, as we are all atheist.

  20. Gabriela says:

    Thanks for answering my question, Pawel.
    As I see, you grandma may not be 100% well, but she’s doing fine. That’s nice. And most important, she has beloved ones taking care of her.
    All my life, I lived with my tia Angelita. She was the youngest sister of my great grandmother. Even though we all loved her so much, she sometimes managed to exhaust our patience. So I’m pretty sure I can get the whole picture of the situation your are on right now. Now I miss my aunt so much. I guess having a grandma around, or any elder relative, is a blessing.
    Please, tell her someone from Peru sends her greetings.

  21. Ciaran says:

    Another reason is because they are just grumpy bastards.

  22. […] royalty, should be just for representing us at a various functions, looking nice, smiling a lot (or as much as a Pole can), and chatting up other kings and queens about […]

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