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Business etiquette in Poland

Kasia Lanucha, Intercultural Communication Trainer and Coach at the University of Cambridge

Please briefly introduce yourself

My name is Kasia Lanucha, I was born in Poland and I lived and studied in Germany before coming to the UK in 2006. I help individuals and organisations break into and flourish in both the UK and Polish markets through cross-cultural training and coaching,

Why cross-cultural training and coaching?

 My becoming a cross-cultural trainer and coach was in many ways an organic process. I used to teach languages in the business sector and realised that my students were in greater need for cultural guidance than improved language skills.

During my master’s degree in linguistics and teaching, I devoted a considerable amount of time to learning about cultures and their impact on the way we interact with each other. I discovered that relationships don’t tend to fail because of poor language skills, but rather from a lack of cultural competence; thus, the idea for the business was born. Since then I’ve been running Speak Culture to help bring people together and help them achieve their business goals.

What is important to consider when trading with Poland?

There are two important aspects. Firstly, we are often led to believe that “business is business” wherever we are. As a consequence, we only learn about cultural differences the hard way. Secondly, we usually anticipate cultural challenges when trading with far-flung countries, but within Europe, closer to home, we tend to lower our guard.

Although generalisations should be avoided, there are nevertheless certain common patterns of behaviour which differ from nation to nation. Of course, there are further differences across sectors, regions and generations, regardless of the country, but the largest differences are inter-cultural.

What about cultural differences between Poland and the United Kingdom?

The differences can be rather subtle, but I have repeatedly been told about similar experiences by Brits and Poles alike. Here are some examples of my own experience when dealing with Polish and British business people.

Getting to know one another

It takes longer in the UK to get to know each other before offers are made or deals are closed. The British tendency to want to establish a rapport before getting down to business confuses many Polish people.

I’ve witnessed many situations when Poles tried to cut down on small talk and ask to get “down to business” without “beating about the bush.” When they do try and embrace small talk, they are often unsure what topics are appropriate. Many also told me that, in their view, it takes much longer to do business with British people than with other Polish people.

Hierarchy

Attitudes towards hierarchy also differ. Status is somewhat more important in Poland, where we tend to use formal titles and surnames, as opposed to the flatter organisational structures and first names used in the UK.

Some British people get put off when we introduce ourselves with: “I am the CEO of the market leader in XYZ,” but, just like in Germany, titles, roles, and professional achievements are seen as giving you more credibility – hence the focus on certificates instead of references. For example, I used to give private tuition in German in the UK. Every now and then, a Polish potential client would ring me up and ask me for my teaching qualifications.

Directness

 In Poland, good communication is understood to be precise and simple and messages are taken at face value. Once, to my surprise, I was told that “Polish (and Russian) people come across as blunt because they don’t have articles and it makes them sound a bit rude when they speak English.” Well, I don’t think that’s quite the reason! It is true that there are no definite or indefinite articles in Polish (the, a/an), but in my opinion, our bluntness is due to the way we formulate requests and feedback. Both can come across as very direct to a British person.

Although this might be a bit surprising to a British person, Poles people are sometimes baffled by the British politeness. Simply put, we sometimes struggle to understand what they mean (for example: “There is a problem” vs. “We need to talk”.) Similarly, when we hear “I’ll be in touch” at the end of an interview, meeting or discussion, we are convinced it went well!

Seriousness, humour and tension

People tend to be more emotional in Poland than in the UK, both in terms of displaying positive and negative feelings. Business is a serious matter and it can sometimes get tense, especially during tough negotiations. The British “keep calm” attitude has no equivalent in Poland and cracking a joke to relax the atmosphere can bring about the opposite effect – and even increase the tension.

What are your top 3 tips for trading with Poland?

Although a simple list of dos and don’ts can never guarantee smooth interactions, it is, at least, a good place to start!

My top 3 tips:

  1. Don’t be surprised if the interactions feel a bit more rigid, hierarchical or serious than you might expect from a British business partner.
  2. Accept that sometimes there will be “big talk” before the “small talk.”
  3. Don’t be put off by the lack of diplomacy – honesty is greatly valued in Polish culture and pointing a finger at the problem directly can save time and help to find the solution more quickly.

Most of all, whatever you do, please remember to keep an open mind, rather than judging by your ingrained standards – cultural norms in no way represent “common sense.”

 

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