Facing a Slavic Soul

What are Poles like? While plan­ning your visit to Poland, you will surely have asked yourself: what can I expect? Let's start with some stereotypes, both positive and negative.

People living between the Odra and the Bug are often thought to be emotional (even hot-tempered), and very patriotic: freedom-loving, with a touch of the anarchist's spirit. This image has been reinforced dur­ing the last 200 years of permanent revolution and uprising, WWII, and Solidarność, which brought the big mustache of Lech Wałęsa into the set of Polish stereotypes. Poles like that image. Do not be surprised if you become involved in discussions about history - Polish people like that too. Poles may often emphasize that the first written constitution in Europe was established in Poland, that they were betrayed by Western allies, that their country has been attacked, destroyed and divided so many times. Some people like to say that the Poles have a ‘victim mentality', but you should decide that for yourself.

Poles are also very religious, most­ly Roman Catholic, to be precise. Have you seen reports on TV about two million Poles going to Rome to the funeral of the Pope in April 2005? This was no exaggeration. Religion is very important in Poland, even for young people (they are some­times called JP II Generation), which is not that obvious in many other countries in Europe. Membership in the EU has not caused a decline in religious observance or identifica­tion, as some expected. There is even a bigger tendency to church attendance than was the case in the 1990s. On the other hand, you will find that Poles are also very prag­matic in their attitude towards faith, one could say... nonchalant.

In the opinion of many foreigners, Poles are quite open-hearted. Is it true? Walking along the street you will not certainly see many people smiling like the Brazilians do, and when asking others for something you may often face a cool reaction. The hero of the movie "Sideways" (2004) even says: "And now I will be gloomy like a Pole". Another sugges­tion is that Poles are a mistrustful lot: one poll found that only 11% declare they trust others easily (in Norway the fig­ure was 80%). However, some socio­logical surveys can be misleading, and you should always get a sense of people from real life experience. After a few months here you may be even able to have the impression that Poles are reluctant to hide their emotions behind a mask of political correctness and that social relations are not so structured and formalized as in other cultures. You can move quite quickly from acquaintance to a friendship here. But remember: if you ask Poles friendly "how are you" be ready, that they will tell you the truth.

What about tolerance towards minorities, or national and sexual differences? In the past, Poland was a multi-ethnic society, but after World War II that diversity was lost. There were few opportunities to put our tolerance in practice. Since the beginning of the 90's, when Poland reopened to the world, more and more foreigners have come to live and work here. However, the una­voidable growth of immigration in the coming years will be a real test of the attitude of Poles to ethnic, national and religious diversity. A short poll among students from other continents suggests that, at present, Polish attitudes are reasonably mod­erate. One student observed that while people do stare at him from time to time, this seems more a sign of interest and astonishment than aversion.

Another controversial issue is the Polish attitude to sexual minorities. Recent international media cover­age has highlighted the intolerant voices towards homosexuality that are prominent (and ascendant) in Polish politics. Poland remains a very traditional country. Gay and lesbian life, while undoubtedly present (and in some cities such as Warszawa, Kraków and Sopot quite vibrant), is still largely ‘underground', even in the big cities. Certainly, you will not find the degree of easy acceptance of homosexuality that is commonplace in Western Europe. Polish gays and les­bians tend for the most part to avoid making any public suggestion of their sexual orientation, and will expect the same from foreigners. Many, perhaps most, are not out of the closet, even to friends and family.

And please heed a friendly word of caution: public displays of affec­tion between same-sex couples will almost certainly elicit strong disap­proval. In all, Poland faces now a severe social conflict over this issue, very present in the recent public debate.

A very popular image of Poles is that they drink... a lot. The French say, "drunk like a Pole". A funny historical anecdote comes to mind: in 1978 Pope John Paul II, already elected to the rank, asked a Polish priest visiting the Vatican the reac­tion of his compatriots to his election. "They raved, they were delighted" and so on, said the priest. "And did they drink?" asked the Pope smiling. "Oh yes, they did", was the embar­rassed answer. How much truth is there in the stereotype of the heavy-drinking Pole? On the one hand, you will certainly see drunk people in the street ... and not only on New Year's Eve! (in recent times this is prob­ably due as much to British tourists on stag tours). On the other hand, since the beginning of the 90's drink­ing habits have changed, and ‘hard drinking' is less common. First of all, vodka has lost its appeal. Among young people beer is absolutely number one, but many people are developing a taste for wine. Vodka itself is preferred mixed, rather than straight, like the very popular "mad dog" shots: vodka, Tabasco and raspberry syrup.

What about the Polish attitude towards women? This is a country of traditional gallantry: opening the door for women and kissing the hand is still wide-spread especially among older people. It used to be an important part of the old noble­man's ethos, but not only. During the last 150 years women have gained respect, having taken responsibil­ity for cultivating and maintaining Polish identity and traditions, while men were at war or in exile.

How does the historical image of ‘mother Poland' translate into the real life of modern Poland? More common than the traditional family with a woman at home is the model of the family in which the woman, who is working, is also taking care of the children and housekeeping at the same time. Women face a "glass ceiling" in their careers and are generally under­represented in public life. On the other hand, there are many indica­tions of change. In the last 15 years, women have held the post of prime minister and president of the central bank. Many have held ministerial positions. If you visit the universi­ties you might get the impression that there are more female students than male. Well, it's true, and sta­tistics confirm this. Another sign of progress is female participation in Poland's growing small-business sector, which has one of the high­est rates of female participation in the world.