Brad is back!
Polish is, as everyone knows, a foreign language. Despite my efforts to speak louder, use simple words and sometimes point the fact remains that some people don’t speak English. It’s all well and good to tut about how poor everyone’s English seems to have gotten lately but, as more or less permanent residents of Poland, we foreign interlopers must eventually bow to the crushing pressure and learn Polish–and more than just the curse words! It’s a matter of respect you see.
Respect is what this is about. Polish–and Poles–demand it. In English, and in the US in particular, it’s fairly simple: If you are low on the food chain, everyone above you is “sir”, “ma’am” or “miss”. Anyone with a gun or a badge or dressed in judge’s robes is always addressed as formally as the speaker knows how (“Your honor”, “Officer” or “His Holiness” usually suffice). If you are high on the food chain, everyone you speak to can be addressed as “mister”, “miss” or, more likely, just by name. As in: “Hey Brad, I know it’s 4:55 pm but I need this report by 8 am. I hope they pay you for the overtime.”
In Polish, it’s not quite so simple. The general rule of thumb is that, if you don’t know someone, then it’s pan (mister) or pani (miss (I will use “pani” throughout for simplicity)). Simple, right?
But… when I asked my wife why I couldn’t address the girl at the restaurant we’ve gone to, literally, 50 or more times as “you” (as in “Czy masz [popular menu item] dziesaj?”) I was emphatically told “No. You don’t know her and she’s never said you could address her as ‘you'”. This threw me a bit because where I come from the opposite would be considered a bit standoffish or even rude. Regulars know each other… don’t they? Also… you have to be given permission? Really? Pan Jesus H. Christ.
This got me thinking. How do you address children? My wife answered “you” but noted that when she was still quite young, just 15, she was working *and* going to school. At work she was “pani” however, this reverted back to “you” when she was a student. Apparently at around 14-16 years of age it switches from “you” to “pani” and stays that way until you die. University students are “pani”. Okay… so what are you called when you die? My wife’s co-worker says “Sacred Memory” (as in “Swietej Pamieci Paulina Zimmerman”). Fair enough. I’ll respect the dead… as long as I can remember how.
Then I asked about the Polish wife of another guest-writer – I’ve just met her and don’t know her THAT well so is she still pani or you? “You”, my wife said – she introduced herself by name. Ok. What about people at stores with nametags? “Pani [name]”. Okaaay… what about people at work? “You” she said, adding that it’s company policy not to be too formal. Ok… but by this point my head was becoming fairly full with the various situations and rules. The last time I ever said “sir” was to the VP of our company and I don’t think I’ve used “mister” in a decade or more.
My head was swimming a bit so, around this point, my wife decided to muddy the waters by noting that when you address a woman (or girl illegally working at her dad’s video rental store) as “pani” then their name, no matter what the last letter is (which for girls always an ‘a’ (guys don’t have a similar rule)) now ends with “o” not “a”. As in, “Paulino” (not Paulina), “Barbaro” (not Barbara), and so on. Guys get a “u” added to the end of their name. Bartoszu, Andrzeju, etc. So now I need to remember their names (tough, I barely remember mine) and to change it to something else before it gets outta my mouth. By now I’m wondering how the hell anything ever gets done here and, being cynical, noting that things never happen quickly and wondering if correlation means causation.
My wife wrapped this all up by noting that despite all the respect it can often be skin-deep in Poland. She mentioned that earlier in the day one of her co-workers had been called by the police because one of her (the co-worker’s) asshole neighbors had nuisance-called the cops saying her car was illegally parked. The co-worker said it was in one of those many “grey area” parking spots – a spot the neighbor happens to covet – but nonetheless had to leave work early and take a taxi home. Due to force of habit, I’m guessing the conversation between the neighbor and co-worker started with the respectful forms of “Pan/Pani” but likely went rapidly downhill into disrespectful territory. Still, one must remember the niceties.