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Business etiquette, language & culture

Language

Polish, the official language of Poland, is a west Slavic language spoken by around 38 million people in Poland, and as a second language in parts of Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine.

The Polish alphabet has a number of additional letters to those of our Latin alphabet, formed using diacritics. It is the second most-spoken Slavic language after Russian, and shares some of its vocabulary with other neighbouring Slavic countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine and Belarus. English is the most common foreign language spoken in Poland.

 

Meeting and greeting

A firm handshake and direct eye-contact is important, greeting each person in turn. However, men should wait for a woman to extend their hand, and some Polish men may kiss a woman’s hand as a sign of respect. Unless invited to do so, first names are rarely used in business, but professional titles can be used, or the prefix ‘Pan’ (Mr) and ‘Pani’ (Mrs or Ms) followed by their surname. Business cards should be translated into Polish on one side – do not use an internet translation, but the services of an official translator. See AST Language Services: www.astlanguage.com

 

Business etiquette

(By Łukasz Lemke, business consultant, BPCC Trade)

Overall, Polish business culture is similar to Western European norms. Some differences arise from cultural and historical factors e.g. a higher degree of formality, more direct communication, a focus on concrete and measurable concepts. However, in line with wider cultural norms in Poland, the business culture is changing and there are considerable gaps. These are generational, regional, but also some that are harder to classify. What follows is a quick overview of the main specificities of Polish business culture, as well as some practical tips for presentations and meetings.

Formal business atmosphere

The first thing you will notice in interacting with potential Polish business partners is that Polish business culture is more formal. The mandatory use of handshakes, titles-first-and last-names, the importance of hierarchy and adherence to protocol make business meetings in Poland a more solemn affair. Poles will likely maintain a direct and focused professionalism, and the topic of discussion will quickly move to substantive issues.

Not limited to meetings, this approach is accompanied by a traditionally very hierarchical management style. Seniority is acknowledged, in negotiations, for example, it may be advisable to send delegates of an equivalent status to that of Polish colleagues attending. Business may be conducted slowly, with adherence to rules and formalities. Trust and honesty are valued.

It is difficult to build a rapport by being too friendly, too soon and informal use of first names (before being explicitly invited to do so) will be seen as impolite and too forward, and will be met with distrust.

Direct communication style

The second difference that quickly becomes apparent is the direct style in which Poles communicate. Poles say what they think and address matters directly – especially when saying no. This ‘low-context communication’ is very different in style to more indirect communication in the UK. Especially if irritated, frustrated, or angry, Poles would probably not hide their emotions.

The style of expressing opinions is also different. Criticism comes before appreciation. Poles will have an attitude of ‘if something is working, why should we talk about it’, and will not feel under an obligation to give positive feedback. They are unlikely to show insincere enthusiasm. However, they will feel obliged to act on feedback given.

Combined with a certain slowness in replying to emails and following up, Poles can come across as brusque, showing a lack of interest and concentrating on the negatives to someone used to British business culture.

The issue of language can also be a complication. While the level of English is likely to be good among decision-makers in internationally-active companies, English-speaking Poles might miss out on flowery metaphors, slang, or UK pop culture references. They may have less sense of political correctness and have limited awareness of connotations of specific words in British English.

Variety in business culture – generational gap, post-communist attitude

Another key fact of Polish business culture is its variety. Younger generations are more familiar and at ease with Western European and American styles of conducting business, but for a large part of the older population memories of communism, its fall, and economic transformation in the 1990s are very strong. A post-communist mentality is common i.e. bureaucratic, legalistic, hierarchical, traditional and in some, strongly entrepreneurial with a propensity for improvisation. Similar attitudes can be expected not only in the older generation but also in smaller towns and rural areas, closed-off industries and sectors, and small, older SMEs. This is of course a generalisation because business culture in Poland is quickly changing, and it is not always obvious what attitude to expect from your interlocutors.

One point to keep in mind is not to refer to Poland as part of ‘Eastern Europe’ because it’s a politically-charged term, use ‘Central Europe’. Many Poles may interpret referring to ‘Eastern Europe’ as associating the country only with its Russian-dominated past following World War II, ignoring more recent achievements as well as more distant history and traditions.

Emphasis on concrete, measurable results

Polish attitudes are likely to be down-to-earth, realistic and somewhat cynical. Poles dislike motivational speeches and excessive displays of enthusiasm (somewhat as a response to memories of widespread use of propaganda). With an attitude of ‘expect the worst, and then you will be pleasantly surprised’, Poles prefer to focus on concrete, realistic actions with achievable, measurable results. While having big visions, high expectations, and promising a huge impact at the planning stage in the UK is understood as motivational, in Poland, this would be received as unrealistic wishful thinking.

Cross-cultural skills theory

  • Poland ranks very highly in uncertainty avoidance and people prefer to avoid ambiguity, are more expressive, show emotions to release anxiety, freely criticise and correct things they disagree with. This may appear to be confrontational and aggressive to those from the other end of the uncertainty avoidance spectrum (e.g. from the UK).

  • Poland ranks medium-low in individualism, while the UK is very individualistic.

  • Poland displays a high power distance. Here, authority matters, workers are dependent on their bosses, and are reluctant to offer contrary opinions.

  • The cultural landscape of Poland is dynamically evolving.

Other considerations

Overall, Poles have a very positive perception of the UK and British products, which are associated with high quality, innovation, design and brand. But also, bringing us to the final and key point, high price. In many cases, British products are more expensive than those from competitor markets such as Germany. Polish consumers and enterprises are very price-sensitive. Quite simply, disposable income and purchasing power in Poland are much lower than in the UK, still far below the EU average, and Polish consumers and enterprises often cannot afford UK products and settle for lower-quality alternatives. Combined with Polish direct communication styles, this can lead to the issue of prices being discussed early and forthrightly.

Presentations

  • Presentations should be clear and readily understood – specific, detailed, backed-up with facts rather than fanciful and referring to intangible effects. They should not be excessively enthusiastic.

  • Presentations should clearly describe and delineate the scope of the proposed relationship, outlining the mode of cooperation and the proposed roles.

  • Samples can be a useful way of backing-up your points.

  • A formal follow-up letter should be sent after the presentation.

  • The tone and approach may need to vary depending on your audience.

  • Questions on prices and other specifics should be expected.

Meetings

  • The initial meeting is likely to be short and to the point, questions regarding prices may arise. The Polish participants will want to clearly know the purpose of the visit and the scope of the eventual relationship.

  • In a negotiation process, do not be condescending or offer an ultimatum as stubbornness will be received badly and bargaining is not the Polish style. Friendly and pointed arguments will work best, never angry ones.

  • All important issues will ultimately be decided by the senior executive or owner due to the hierarchical nature of the business, if decision-makers are not present at a meeting, it is likely to be informational only, with no decisions likely to be taken.

Emails

  • The Polish emailing style may appear less refined compared to UK norms, coming mostly from a wish to save time. For example, it is common not to sign with your name except as part of the automated signature.

  • All business correspondence will most likely be addressed using a full title, first name, and last name, even in later parts of a longer conversation.

  • Poles will feel less obliged to respond to emails quickly, or send confirmation after receiving a message.

  • There is less of a strict custom of copying all involved in the previous correspondence when replying to emails.

[Source: British Polish Chamber of Commerce]

 

Poland public holidays 2017

Date:

Day:

Holiday:

16 April

Sunday

Easter Sunday

17 April

Monday

Easter Monday

1 May

Monday

State Holiday

3 May

Wednesday

Constitution Day

4 June

Sunday

Pentecost Sunday

15 June

Thursday

Corpus Christi

15 August

Tuesday

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

1 November

Wednesday All Saints' Day

11 November 

Saturday Independence Day

25 December

Monday Christmas Day

26 December

Tuesday 2nd Day of Christmas

 

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