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Culture shock

Culture shock/Poland from the foreign point of view

Many people travelling go through an initial period of euphoria and excitement, overwhelmed by the thrill of being in a totally new and unusual environment. Energy seems boundless for a while. When this initial feeling of adventure subsides, they sometimes no longer feel all that comfortable. Minor problems can seem major crises without friends, family, and mother-tongue to help, and some find themselves growing depressed. If this happens to you you will feel like a lonely outsider. You may feel an anxiety, a kind of psychological disorientation. What does it mean? You are experiencing what people refer to as 'culture shock'. It is important to understand that this reaction is entirely normal and it will pass! As long as you know it in advance, you can prepare yourself psychologically to accept the temporary discomfort and turn it into an advantage by learning from it. Remember that you are not the only one experiencing occasional frustration, irritability, and depression, and you can find comfort in the other foreign students.


Here are some little differences which may puzzle or surprise foreigners in Poland.

Some of these are still common:

  • Paying for the toilet in some restaurants or bars.
  • Trying to send a parcel in the post office may require a special kind of string.
  • Having to be quiet in your flat after 10 p.m. but being allowed to start loud work again at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m.
  • Flowers for many occasions (but always an odd number of them!).
  • Polish celebration of one's name day, rather than one's birthday.
  • Christmas dinner is on Christmas Eve with carp, often eaten in jelly (delicious!).
  • The direct translation of "I'm sorry, I'm afraid we haven't got any of it at the moment, try again tomorrow or would you like me to order some for you" in a shop is 'Nie ma' said in a tone of voice that makes you feel guilty for having even asked. Shop security may seem extremely suspicious, especially towards young people, and keep an eye on you through cameras and mirrors.
  • Despite the fact that a handshake is the typical greeting in Poland, some men might not shake a woman's hand. Some may kiss the hand of a woman. Women (and sometimes men) who are close friends will kiss each other on both cheeks.
  • Time of eating meals differs considerably from that in most other European countries. Breakfast is eaten early in the morning, then at about 3 or 4 p.m. there is usually a two-course dinner (soup and a main course); finally supper is consumed at about 7-8 p.m. (it often consists of sandwiches or yoghurts). There is no lunch break at work.

As it takes time to understand the different behaviour in a new culture and to know how to react, here are a few comments for newcomers:

  • Poland is a very religious country and on a Sunday you will see enourmous numbers going to church, young as well as old.
  • The month before Christmas is a holy time (advent), not a time for parties. The same goes for the time of Lent before Easter.
  • You should cross a street at zebra crossings but watch out as cars sometimes do not seem to feel any need to stop!
  • Lectures at the university may start sometimes 15 minutes later (so-called 'academic quarter' acceptable rather among university teachers and not students)
  • Students often wear formal clothes (often a white blouse/shirt and dark skirt/trousers) during university exams.
  • English is still not so common in Poland (not in the countryside at least), and German is more popular among middle-aged and older people.