How to answer the phone in Poland

For us expats, migrant workers, and Scatts this is a problem that never really goes away. Answering the phone in a foreign country is one of those critical social situations that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. I’m talking about phone calls when you don’t know who’s on the other end – landline phones or the dreaded ‘unknown number’ on your mobile.

Polish phone
Remember the days when you had to phone a building and hope?

I’ve long been a student of the way different nationalities answer the phone, by which I mean I’ve sometimes noticed they do it differently in other countries and though “Gosh, that’s interesting.” The Spanish say “Dígame!” meaning “Speak to me!” which always sounded appropriate in a voluble Latino kind of way, the Japanese say “Moshi moshi,” which apparently doesn’t mean anything at all and is therefore also appropriate in an oriental one-hand-clapping kind of way, and the Polish say “Słucham” meaning “I’m listening,” which is funny because it would be an extremely rude way of answering the phone in English. Back when I was convinced all Polish people were rude I thought it was hilarious.

Moshi moshi
Moshi moshi. I admit, I always thought they were saying “washing machine.”

Leaving aside the vagaries of national variations in phone-answering phrases the problem of how to answer the phone if you are a foreigner remains. If you’re fluent in Polish it isn’t a problem of course, but how many of us can claim to be so fluent that speaking on the phone, probably the most difficult of all language-skill tests, isn’t a problem? Certainly not me. There are three common responses to this problem:

1. The ‘Słucham’

You’ve learned a bit of Polish and you know you’re supposed to say ‘Słucham’ when you answer the phone. You answer the phone with “Słucham” and things go rapidly down hill from there. The person on the other end unconsciously hears what he is expecting and assumes you’re a native speaker of Polish. Usually he then attempts to sell you life insurance, but the guy is speaking so fast you have no idea what he’s saying and you can’t discount the possibility that he might be begging you to write the definitive history of Poland (or whatever your thing is). You say “Ermmm” and explain in bad Polish that you can’t understand. He tries to sell you life insurance all over again and the cycle repeats until somebody gets tired and hangs up.

The ‘Słucham’ is a high-risk strategy that rarely brings happiness. If you’re a young man about town likely to receive phone calls from half-remembered females it may be worth the risk for suaveness value. Otherwise, forget it.

* * *

2. The ‘Hello’

You’ve been through the whole ‘Słucham’ debacle and have decided to switch back to your native language. “If I answer in English,” you reason “the person on the other end will think I don’t speak Polish and will abandon any attempt to sell me life insurance.” You even go so far as to make your ‘Hello’ as broad and colloquial as your native regional accent allows: “’ello,” “yellow,” or, in extreme cases, “yo.”

It doesn’t work. Unfortunately Poles have the word ‘halo’ which is used exclusively on the phone to mean something like “are you there?” and is close enough to ‘hello’ to make them think that’s what they heard. The conversation goes like this:

You: Hello!
Insurance salesman (uncertain): Halo?… Dzien dobry?…
You: Dzien dobry (because you can’t help replying to a ‘Dzien dobry’ when you hear one)
Insurance salesman (now confident): Yada yada yada life insurance yada yada latest scheme from America yada yada yada…
You: (sigh…)

* * *

3. The surrealist approach

The problem is that 99 percent of the Polish population speaks Polish. The average Pole calling a number in Poland just isn’t expecting a non-Polish speaker to answer. Breaking down this expectation takes extreme measures, just saying “hello” doesn’t cut it.

I’ve tried the following with some success:

“Smocza jama. Mowi smok.”

“Harrogate 359, please hold for Mr. Herriot”

(sung) “And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green…”

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36 thoughts on “How to answer the phone in Poland

  1. MaterialGirl says:

    We are saying “Halo?”/hallo not “hello”!

    “Halo. Kto mówi?”. “Hallo/hello. Who is speaking?”.

  2. Terry says:

    This is a great post that relates to all expats in any given country.

    Here in Bosnia, the common answering phrase is “Molim” (mow-leem) which translates to “Please” in English.

    I too have tried to use my initiative in an attempt to straighten the proverbial learning curve by answering the phone with “Molim” and as the author notes, it is automatically assumed that I am a native Bosnia, Serbian, Croatian or Balkanese speaker.

    Three years later…
    Ring, Ring:
    ME: “Hello, this is Terry speaking”
    CALLER: “Molim?”
    ME: “This is Terry speaking. Who is this?”
    CALLER: “Buhka buhka yak yak”
    ME: “I’m sorry, you must have the wrong number”

    I have learnt that the only people I need to talk to on the phone are those that speak English. If it’s an authority of sorts, they can find a translator. This may seem like an ignorant approach but it has made my telephone encounters much more manageable.

  3. Bob says:

    I always figure that whoever is calling should know who I am or who my wife is so I always answer: “Hello this is Bob”. If it is a solicitor there is always a looong pregnant pause and then they invairiably launch into their pitch which I cut short by saying ‘Mowi Angielski?” About 1/2 the time they just hang up the other segments – in Polish asking for my wife, or saying in Polish their name as it is a Polish friend and we then try to decipher why they are calling and figure out the next steps or sometimes they speak in a bit of nervous English trying to tell me why they are calling etc. I get very few calls from English speakers I know. Even when Adam calls I am not sure what language he is speaking, god forbid if scatts calls!

  4. Ania says:

    (sung) “And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green…” – oh, Gott, that killed me :D

    I have smaller problem with it, since I understand. But I have no luck. if the landline call and I say halO? invariably the person calling is British. If I choose hel-low?, the person calling is my Mom.

  5. guest says:

    Next time you should try “tu mowi Londyn !” ha ha.

    “tu mowi Londyn” is a well known phrase in Poland, because the BBC radio free europe news always started like this :)

  6. adthelad says:

    Ahaaaa!! That perennial problem of how to answer the phone when either you do, or don’t, speak the host language.
    I always answer with ‘Good morning/afternoon’ in english if I don’t know host language or with the host language equivilant if I do. This opening greeting also serves perfectly for when I’m doing the calling.

    However, it seems from a ‘certain’ comment above that this system is not fool proof ;). One forgets that, despite the common denominator, people who speak dicksey can’t always understand those who speak cockney.

  7. Sylwia says:

    LOL

    Some people say ‘proszę’ and some say just ‘tak’, especially at work.

    When my English teacher told us that one should answer the phone in English with something like “Hello this is XY” we didn’t want to believe. If someone is calling us they should know whom they are calling to.

  8. Kuba says:

    I just answer Hello on my home phone or cell. If at work I answer with just my last name.

  9. airam says:

    It’s like telling the locals that you don’t understand their language, IN their language. E.g. say: “Je ne parle pas français…” and however broken your French is, be raedy for a long monologue about frog legs, boiled snails etc etc

  10. gls says:

    I had long forgotten the tension that surged into my body when I heard my phone ring. Fortunately, I lived in a village and everybody knew me and my linguistic limitations. Still, my friend from Warsaw had fun one time calling and telling me that there were problems with my visa and yada yada yada. Little did he know how much he actually confused me: I’d just been to get my visa renewed a few weeks earlier…

  11. Chris says:

    When I first moved to Italy, I knew a little of the language and tried answering the phone in Italian. This was so embarrassing that I gave up and was scared of the bloody thing for about a year. Once my Italian was good enough I was happy to answer it in Italian again. I did get my own back at work, where one should just say ‘pronto’, as I started answering in English and 9 times out of 10 the phone would be slammed down at the other end. I could almost see the look of horror on the dialler’s face as he tried to understand what the hell had just happened. Ha!

    Now I’m in Poland, I’ve tried answering the phone in Polish, but it’s a waste of time as I never understand the next thing the caller says. I now answer with Good morning / afternoon or just Chris speaking. If it’s an English speaker I’m quids in. If not, then there is always a pause and the caller will generally speak slowly, ask for my wife or just hang up. Each way I’m a winner.

    Bob,

    Adam spoke to me on the phone today in Polish – very confusing indeed!

  12. odrzut says:

    My friend always answers the phone at work with very polite:
    “Czego!?” :)

    BTW: ending the conversation is other interesting topic.
    for example – what would you answer to a priest that tell you at the end of conversation by phone:
    “Pokój z Tobą”
    or “Niech Bóg darzy”. Priest in my village loves to do this, and nobody knows how to answer to that (we are Polish btw).

    I think he does this to make fun of us.

  13. guest says:

    BTW, here is a “must see” for all cracovians ! :)

    http://wildbergair.com/photos/flightimpressions/smallaircraft/20090521/090521_03.htm

    tell us where you live ;)

  14. news says:

    Russians, Lithuanians, indeed anyone who lived in the Tsarist Empire, I think, say ¨I’m listening,¨ when they answer the phone.

    They also think that the British way of saying your phone number is from cloud-cuckoo land.

  15. Bob says:

    “Adam spoke to me on the phone today in Polish – very confusing indeed!”

    I thought his attempt at English was tough for me – must be the British accent, but I can understand yours Chris! (sorry Adam)

  16. yellerbelly says:

    Very good. The old “słucham” always gets me (I’m still at that stage where I think all Poles are rude..erm…apart from my wife), and they don’t just use it on the phone. I have colleagues who you’re having a perfectly nice conversation with and they suddenly say “Słucham!” and tell you they have to go as their barszcz is getting cold because they’ve been talking too long. The sensitive part of me always feels a little offended when this happens. Even ‘tak’ sounds too sharp for a Brit. It’s like answering the phone in England with “WHAT?”.

    Ah yes, the old answer a ‘dzien dobry’ with another ‘dzien dobry’. Classic mistake made when trying to impress and one I still make frequently on the phone. By the time they’ve heard you and started selling you something, it’s far too late to apologise and go native!

    I know a few people who answer their telephone by saying their surname. Personally, I think it’s a little strange, unless the whole office is full of men called ‘Maciek’, in which case it makes perfect sense.

  17. Scatts says:

    [makes metal note to call Bob!]

    I use a faintly impatient sounding “hello” at home because we get so few calls on the home phone it’s bound to be a weirdo. On the mobile I vary it depending on who’s calling – anything from “What is it with you? You’re ALWAYS calling at a bad time you crazy sack of shite!” to just my full name. In the office I often use my surname, full name or something more imaginative if I recognise the number.

    That picture of the big black phone takes me back. Almost as big as my first ever mobile, which was of course not mobile at all unless I drove the car around.

  18. wildphelps says:

    I found that making calls was harder – You have to announce yourself – “Mowi Tom” (Tom speaking) just after you get the “Slucham” and then have some sort of polite request ready.

    Also in my experience the “Hello” also works not just as an “Are you there” but also “Speak up – I can’t hear you”. This makes for some fun conversations.

    Finally, language texts books are slowly phasing out lessons on phone interactions as so many of the kids use cell/mobile phones with caller id – there is less and less need to go through all the old routines.

  19. “Michał Dembiński z tej strony”

    “Michael Dembinski FROM THIS SIDE”

  20. pinolona says:

    Don’t you have caller ID?!

  21. Ania says:

    “Michael Dembinski ON THIS SIDE”

    ‘z’ has more meanings.

    thank you from the mountain.

  22. island1 says:

    guest: “tu mowi Londyn” :) I’ll have to try that one.

    Great pics by the way, I can just see my house in one of them.

  23. Bartek says:

    it’s still novelty in Poland to introduce oneself when picking up the phone. I developed that habit some time ago and always reply “Bartosz U*******, słucham” whenever I see the withheld ID or unknown number on my handset.

    It’s not entirely true we don’t speak English, we are a bit surprised when we hear a voice speaking a foreign language on the other end and takes us a moment to switch into another language what might be even embarrassing.

    Two years ago I worked on a call centre of one of the Polish mobile operators and my duty was to persuade clients to switch their pre-paid service into post-paid one. One day I heard in the headphones a voice of an aghast Englishman who lived in Poland (number starting from 692 – any of you guys :-)?) and to my surprise I immediately interpreted my pitch appearing on the computer screen into English and had a nice chat with that guy. Half an hour later I was called by my supervisor and asked to interpret the whole conversation into Polish – that was indeed embarrassing! Conclusion – don’t stand out, keep a low profile, in Polish nie wychylaj się, równaj do dołu! (useful to know these principles). regards

  24. Marta says:

    If anyone’s interested, you can find few hypotesis on why the Japanese say “moshi moshi”. Rather funny, I’d say :)

    http://www.tofugu.com/2009/02/26/what-does-moshi-moshi-mean/

  25. Scatts says:

    Bart – U******* is a really unusual surname. How do you pronounce that? The 692 number, not me. I’m 666 same number as Satan.

  26. steven says:

    Tak, słucham, ….. yes, I am listening…If you answered the phone like that in the states you would be considered a snobby ass by most callers. But I use it becuase it s easy to pronounce, to the point, and perfectly acceptable in Poland.Sort of like hand kissing,I do it becuase I like doing it, and I get away with it here. Try kissing the hand of a Norwegian woman for example, try that here in Norway you are liable to be knocked out, but in Wrocław it s ok. Poland is one of the true free states where people can answer the phone any way they wish, and kiss the hands of strange women often. What a country.

  27. adthelad says:

    odrzut – try using the old favourite ‘na wzajem’.

    Incidently. this whole phone etiquette thing is rather cultural. I’ve always considered it the norm that a phone call is a form of intrusion until the caller can be identified so as a principle I never give my name when answering the home phone. Answering the phone at work of course is different and true, the mobile phone with caller ID has changed phone etiquette somewhat, but you wouldn’t think so going by the way most Poles in business still answer calls.

    How some people can find the idea of of saying your number when answering a call as strange is beyond me. All it does (or did, as its use goes way back in time) is confirm to a caller if they have got through to the right number without any personal details being divuldged. Someone misdialling knows immediately they have the wrong number – shortening the whole call and not wasting either parties time. And this etiquette can be used for home and work.

    I wonder if those who find the idea odd are the same ones that answer business calls with just ‘Hello’ or ‘Słucham’ and then silence. No confirmation that you’ve got through to the garage you’ve called, or bank, or office or whatever. The same atmosphere as used to be found, and can still be found, in the Polish shopping experience.

    Oh well, never mind eh?

  28. island1 says:

    Bartek: According to legend Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak once got himself the phone number 888 888 888 at great expense only to find it was compeletely unusable. The problem was that he got about 50 calls a day from small children playing with phones.

  29. Grzesiek says:

    As a Pole I’ve never thought that it can be any problem to answer the phone for a foreigner in PL. Reading all posts I was really suprised to know that “słucham” is a rude way of doing it in English.

    I’ve been working as you Bartek in one of the Polish mobile company. I’ve been renewing the agreements with customers. For me it won’t be any problem to talk with someone in English. I’d like but never had a chance. My friend had talked with someone just a few days after starting this job and she told me that it was a very nice talk.

    I think people are much more friendly on the phone for foreigners then it’s for your natives. All the time I’m calling to US store everone wants to know how to pronounce my name and is trying to repeat it.

    The way I answer the phone depends on the person who is calling. If it’s my friend or someone from family it’s usually “cześć”, “hej”, “hello” or “witam (welcome)”

    If it’s rather unknown number or not my friend it’s “taK”, “słucham”, “proszę” or “tak słucham”., “tak proszę”. About your name at the beginning of the conversation it’s rather very formal way it can be used rather in work than in home.

    Saying “hello” is very popular in Poland so nobody even start to think that you’re foreigner. When I’m at work I usually telling things in this way: ” Halo dzień dobry, Grzegorz B…….. and the name of the company”

    So it’s all from me. What a long post, isn’t it? I’m sorry for my mistakes but I’m a bit tired today so I don’t want to think about grammar ;)

  30. island1 says:

    Grzesiek: ‘słucham’ is only rude if you translate it directly. It would be rude to answer ‘I am listening’ in English, and that’s why it’s a bit funny for English speakers when they learn what ‘słucham’ means. Of course it’s not really rude in Polish.

    As you mention, it’s amazing how many different ways there are to answer the phone.

    I wish you were one of the people who keeps calling me at home, it would be nice to have a chat in English. A few days ago somebody called me trying to sell something and I said ‘pszepraszam, nie rozumiem po polsku’ just because I wanted them to go away. She said ‘okay, I understand’ in perfect English and put the phone down!

  31. P says:

    JESUS! Please cut down on Blake

  32. DeCoy says:

    I’ve usually heard either ‘słucham’ or ‘Halo’ from Polish mobile users.

    However, I’ve tried to mix it up myself a bit, sometimes with a Mr. Burns ‘A-hoy-hoy’, but thankfully, I haven’t had to handle too many Polish calls. I usually end up asking them if they speak English and they seem happy to oblige.

    However, I have recently gotten the dreaded ‘Withheld number’ and even worse – no-one speaking when I answer, so I’ve begun reverse-psychology of not saying anything to withheld numbers, and if they stay on the line, to breathe a little louder. I’m not sure if it has any effect, but it eases the sense of dread in handling the withheld number.

  33. Norman says:

    Why not answer like that “Rezydencja Państwa [nazwisko]” and then, when someone is asking for me and it’s not really important, i tell “Panicz jest w tej chwili zajęty, czy życzy sobie Pan/Pani, by coś przekazać?”.
    My Friend is answering this way: “Agencja Towarzyska Czardybon, Słucham?”. His father is always upset, when he’s doing that. :]

  34. americangoy says:

    The surrealist approach.

    Pure win.

  35. januhhh says:

    >> The Spanish say “Dígame!” meaning “Speak to me!”

    This might be irrelevant, but I’ve been watching “The Fugitive” just now and noticed that one of the characters answers the phone saying “Talk to me”. The action takes place in Chicago. Now I wonder, is it one of the usual ways of answering the phone in English (be it AmE) or is it just that he had spent his last longer vacation in Spain? Also, am I even making any point?

  36. aika says:

    I think it’s a way of saying “I – your boss/important person – have 30s for you to give me your report. Now.”

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