11 cultural differences between Poland and the US

Americans of Polish descent – nearly 10 million of them – form the largest Slavic ethnic group in the USA, and the largest diaspora of Poles in the world. So from the start, the two cultures have deep connections. Yet when embarking on a business relationship, or when Americans and Poles are working together for the first time, differences in the two cultures become clear. Here are 11 ways Americans and Poles can learn to understand one another more effectively.

  1. In Poland people are formal and courteous but at the same time, can be very direct. The better you know someone, the more direct they will feel they can be. Even then, bad or sensitive news will be delivered diplomatically. Americans tend to be more brutal in the delivery of bad news in a business context, but at the same time, far more politically correct. Both cultures, when working together, should try to find common ground in this basic element of communication. Americans need to appreciate that to get the best out of a business relationship with their Polish counterparts, time needs to be dedicated to relationship building.
  2. Americans should understand that Poland still has two different mentalities. The middle aged and older generations would have started their working life in Communist times, when there was no service ethic, authority was not questioned and individuals were not empowered to make decisions, resulting in apathy and a lack of ambition. Although Communism ended three decades ago, attitudes sometimes still prevail. Younger Poles, on the other hand, are more like Americans: entrepreneurial, ambitious, energetic and globally mobile.
  3. Poles are more sparing with words than Americans. They consider their culture – and mindset – to be dark, deep and romantic. An American may respond to a question, ‘OK, great! Fantastic!’, while a Pole would simply say ‘OK’. This can give the more effusive American the impression that their Polish counterpart is being sullen, or abrupt, but in the Polish person’s mind, this is not the case.
  4. On the surface, Americans are more friendly and extrovert but Poles see themselves as more genuine. Americans will strike up an instant conversation with a stranger, trying to establish common ground. In Poland you may seem shy or awkward with a stranger. Relationships take longer to build. Poles do, however, see themselves as loyal and trustworthy friends, not superficial people.
  5. Poles are famously self-deprecating, while Americans are culturally more likely to sell themselves and talk about their achievements. It is important to understand this when managing a team with Polish members; just because someone doesn’t push themselves forward, does not mean that they don’t have an opinion.
  6. Poland is a member of the EU but this does not mean business practice is as familiar to a north American as it might be in, say, Britain or Germany. Bureaucracy can be overwhelming and the language barrier is an issue. Anybody arriving in Poland to work, or starting a business there should use the services of a local contact to negotiate the red tape.
  7. In negotiations, Americans should not be surprised at the apparent negativity of their Polish counterparts. For Poles, it is normal to pick holes in a deal, examining the worst that could happen and questioning whether the other side is telling the truth. This is not supposed to be insulting; it’s simply theculture in Poland, part of which is still influenced by memories of Communist times, when trust was a precious commodity.
  8. Decision making in Poland can take a long time as individuals try to avoid the responsibility; instead, decisions are made by committee. Americans, who are usually quick decision makers, and who are often focused on short term gain and the wider picture, can find this frustrating.
  9. Poland is a hierarchical society. Everybody knows their place and subordinates expect direction from their superior. A typical Polish boss would be a benevolent autocrat. In the US, structures are much flatter and individuals expect freedom and empowerment in the workplace. A Polish team member newly arrived in the US for work would take time to adapt to this.
  10. Poles are inherently risk-averse, while Americans have a much higher tolerance for risk. Both cultures subscribe to the notion that ‘time is money’ but the American approach to acquiring money – through entrepreneurialism and risk-taking – would seem alien to a Pole. In Poland failure in business or at a task may be taken deeply personally and cause a loss of confidence.
  11. To a Polish person, family, close friends and sometimes, colleagues create an inner circle. Within this circle, individuals are expected to do favours for one another and look after one another. A person’s loyalty is to their family. The equivalent of this inner circle in the US is smaller, at least among the white middle classes; families tend to be widely dispersed and individuals may rely more closely on friends to play the role of ‘family’. A person’s loyalty is essentially to themselves. This is different among Hispanic Americans and other ethnic groups, who tend, broadly speaking, to be more family-orientated. Dealing with the many different cultures that make up the melting pot of the US is something Poles, whose culture is almost entirely homogenous, is a learning curve.


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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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