Eye contact, Polish style.


Richard Harradine has been a guest writer on Polandian before. Undeterred by the terrible reviews and the way his old friends just stopped talking to him, he’s back with more!

As someone who has spent most of his adult life in the theatre business from acting to voice over, directing to producing, my company here in Poland trains politicians, businessmen and professional performers to perfect their presenting skills in the English language. So naturally I am what is loosely called a “people watcher”.

For those of you who have taught English here, you must be familiar with the standard… ‘communication is 40% verbal and 60% body language’ and Poland is a great place to observe people.


Now, Brits are famously stand-offish and have a comfort zone of approximately a foot and a half. Any closer and the average resident of the British Isles will murmur, “so sorry” and retreat in direct relation to the encroached space.

Far Eastern people, especially those shoved together by work (the Japanese) or living styles (the Indonesians) seem to be immune to body proximity or treat it as an unavoidable part of the business of living. When I lived in Jakarta, my friend’s grandmother, mother and wife all slept in the same bed with the light on all night. And his house was huge with 8 bedrooms. He had to summon his wife to the matrimonial bed if he wanted to talk to her.

My theory is that if a nation has been forced to live in close proximity to each other either through communism, where families were allotted living space, or perceived threats to family from others, then over time, living space becomes a luxury. And that brings us to the Poles.

Spatial awareness in crowded places is next to zero. I have given up going with my wife to church Christmas, Easter or Pope visiting occasions, owing to having to stand for interminable amounts of time with someone you don’t know lodging under your armpit (I’m tall). I have actually had Polish people jump out of their skins if I execute a fast overtaking motion a la New York streets. They are simply not aware that you are behind them and closing fast.

The same could be said for queues of any sort. I was in a line at the deli counter in some supermarket, and like most Brits kept a person’s space between myself and the person in front, when an old lady pushed between his back and my front to peer at what was on offer. The fact that her face was literally nestling against my trouser crotch fazed her not the slightest bit as she inspected the various hams and sausages.


Now, half the fun of people watching is the promise of eye contact with some delectable Polish lady as you walk the street on a lovely summer’s day. A pleasant smile has led me to many an adventure. Forget it in Poland. I think that Polish girls are taught that eye contact with a strange male is tantamount to sleeping with him. All I can say on the subject is that the girls here either have stiff necks from so much swivelling to avoid hot, lusty male eyes, or learn at a very early age to sail through life without looking at anyone.I would love to hear from any Polish ladies out there on the subject.

I have a 10 year old daughter and she has some strange ideas taught to her by her Polish mother. I asked her recently why she didn’t roller blade in the playground near my flat…

” Because I might get kidnapped” she replied in all seriousness. “You what? Where did you learn that from?” Mummy of course. I researched how many children have been abducted in broad daylight from Warsaw’s Old Town, and strangely enough the number is a fat Zero.

On the male front, in England, guys will usually check each other out, subconsciously registering size and strength, and 9 times out of 10 pass on by with a glance. In Poland, drunk men fix me with a hard stare trying to guess the size of my wallet. Satisfied that I have sufficient funds for their needs, they proceed to ask for the price of a beer, and seem quite offended if I don’t cough up. The same applies to ALL Polish males of all ages who smoke. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked for a cigarette on the street…and it doesn’t seem to reflect on the asker’s economic status.. they ALL ask for a cigarette. I once replied, “sure you can have a cigarette, if you buy me a beer”. The shock on his face was a picture.

Drunks seem to have a refined sense of recognizing a foreigner and trying their luck. On a train to Zakopane some years ago, I stuck my head out of the compartment and was spotted by a sozzled worker who immediately shouted a greeting and lurched into my compartment where he regaled me for an hour and a half on what, I know not. At his stop, he fell between the train and the platform and held up the train for a couple of hours as he fell asleep on the tracks and they couldn’t wake him up.

I would love to hear any other stories on “eye contact Polish style”

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19 thoughts on “Eye contact, Polish style.

  1. michael farris says:

    I agree with most of what you write but have a quibble.

    For Japanese (and other E and SE Asians IME) public and private personal space are strongly differentiated. In public with people they don’t know and aren’t interacting with, they can ignore personal space requirements to an amazing degree. But in personal interactions with people they don’t know well, they want _more_ personal space than even North Americans. (ref: Words in context, Takao Suzuki)

  2. Aidan says:

    I must be in a different Poland any time I am there because I find that a lot of girls stare me out of it which is disconcerting in broad daylight (par for the course in night haunts where people tend to be drinking).

  3. Michael says:

    It’s funny I’ve made quite a bit of eye contact with people on the streets…both male and female, but maybe because I go out of the way to do so. I also stand out like a sore thumb (at least in summer), so that could be a part of it. As for the personal space issues, I only really have those problems on the bus/metro/tram, and we all know what that’s like during rush hour. I HATE getting begged for cigarettes, and I’ve learned to try not to smoke while waiting for the bus, and if I do, I expect at least one person will ask me for a cigarette. I guess I don’t care about it as long as they’re not trying to be intimidating.

  4. scatts says:

    I’m trying to picture why someone would “stand out like a sore thumb”, especially in the summer?!?!

    You walk around naked?

  5. Murdo MacLeod says:

    Aha, I’m not the only one! I have been living in Poland for almost two years now and know exactly what you mean. However, I would prefer not to be to close to some of the personal-hygiene-challenged and if I had the balls/money would like to offer free soap and deodorant. I usually find that a cursory “Nie rozumiem!” suffices with the ‘can I have a cigarette/beer money’ brigade.

  6. Michael says:

    Scatts: No, I don’t walk around naked, except for every 3rd Thursday evening on Marszalkowska…

    I stand out because I’m covered in tattoos, and the gaping I encounter is fairly humorous. Especially because I make it a point to try to make eye-contact with others as a sign of politeness. Wearing short-sleeve shirts make me look just a teensy bit different than the average person. I’m used to it.

  7. scatts says:

    Michael – thanks for the explanation, must be fun!

    Murdo – I fixed the spelling in first comment and deleted the second comment.

  8. Philosopher says:

    Aha. Communication is a full 60% non-verbal. That explains why I gave up reading so long ago and disconnected my telephone.

  9. anglopole says:

    Well, many scholars have tried to estimate the percentage of non-verbal communication we tend to use and there is no one precise estimate of this kind, I’m afraid:) (it is more than 60% for sure, though)
    When emotional messages we want to convey are taken into consideration, the non-verbal communication is even more than 95%!

    eg.: http://members.aol.com/nonverbal2/nvcom.htm

    or the known 7%-38%-55% Rule:


  10. MG says:

    You are right on about the personal space issue in Poland. There are often some fragrance issues to deal with on the mass transit in Warszawa.

    However, I find that Polish girls have a refreshing way of locking eyes with you on the street. They are not shy about holding that gaze for a moment. It’s so much different than back in the States where you have to guess whether or not a girl is interested in you.

  11. Thanks for your comments…
    Sure, if you’re heavily tattoed like Michael, then you’re obviously going to get stared at. The same could be said of black people, for example, but all for the wrong reasons. And apropos of drunks, I find the acceptance of people totally inebriated as being’ par for the course, quite refreshing here. In England you will definitely get tut- tutted or worse.
    In reply to MG’s comment about Polish girl’s locking eyes with you, I think the clue lies in the sentence ending ” holding that gaze for a moment”.Yes they’re not shy looking at you for a moment, then quickly looking away.
    Finally, if you’re young and attractive, you’ll get the looks no matter what…..and maybe I’m just getting older and wrinkled…woe is me….

  12. Derek says:

    Sorry to hear that you don’t get any eye contact or smiles from polish girls.
    Ever thought that the problem lies somewhere else?
    Never had that problem in Poland, on contrary I find girls’ reactions here extremely refreshing, at least comparing to Canada.
    I find that lots of polish girls are being actually quite bold, they look straight into your eyes, IF THEY ARE INTERESTED or LIKE WHAT THEY ARE SEEING, and often don’t look down or to the side until you pass them by.
    This would never happened in Canada.

    Also, the story about obsession with children being kidnapped I find rather amusing.
    It must be personal thing of your girlfriends, never heard of it being an issue in Poland.
    Sexual obsession, obsession with pedophiles and so on seems to be rather part of North American culture (in my opinion).
    In Poland kids are quite often being left alone, playing on the playgrounds, going to stores or riding buses by themselves and considering the freedom they have, you hear very little about stalkers around playgrounds and all kinds of stories Canadian or American media are full of…
    I find North American parents incomparably much more paranoid about this type of stuff.
    But its just me.

  13. island1 says:

    RHR: What the fook’s going on when I click on your name!?

    “Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light…
    for the land of the free and the home of the brave”

    I like :D

  14. island1 says:

    “The fact that her face was literally nestling against my trouser crotch fazed her not the slightest bit as she inspected the various hams and sausages.”

    Clearly, you shouldn’t keep hams and sausages in your trousers.

    Only took me about three weeks to spot that one.

  15. ISIA says:

    I think that Michael got the point here: “to try to make eye-contact with others as a sign of politeness”. Well, in Poland keeping an eye contact with a stranger is considered to be impolite to rude.
    So Polish girls you met are being either nice (not looking) or interested towards you :-)

  16. lilGOTH says:

    its easy to get laid in poland,I would know.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Yeah i get stared at by everyone in Poland. Mainly the younger generation.

    Must be the fact that they have never see an asian with spiky red hair with a hot Polish girlfriend ?

  18. Kasiunia says:

    mm, Chicagoans don’t really make eye-contact either…might have gotten it from the Chicago Poles, or it might just be a big-city thing. I don’t know why; just feels uncomfortable and awkward make a whole lot of eye-contact, even with people I know well.

  19. muhammad khalid says:

    Live in canada

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