Doing Business in Poland – Business Etiquette
Poland has only been a fully-fledged member of the European Union since 2004. Since its entry, Poland’s economy has made great progress at great speed. It has moved away from the Soviet-influenced command economy and has benefited from the freely flowing goods and capital under the single market system. Despite this new, more open business style, many businessmen of the older generation continue to take a more traditional approach to business, reflecting that of the old Soviet system. This kind of division between the old and the new can be found throughout Polish culture and is one reason why Polish business structures differ dramatically from company to company and do not adhere to one set type as is expected elsewhere in Europe. Generally, Polish business can be broken down into three frameworks: monopoly enterprises, foreign subsidiaries and local start-ups. For this reason, it is essential to any business you enact in Poland that you research the company’s background with which you are dealing.
The Polish language is one of the most challenging languages to learn. It is a Slavic language, and it is second only to Russian in terms of usage of the Slavic languages. For foreign visitors, the main problem is the spelling of words since, like in any other Slavic language, words are full of consonants and lack vowels. This is further complicated by the fact that nouns are gendered.
Polish people are eager to use English, so it is unlikely you will come across any significant communication problems when it comes to socialising. However, it is probably a good idea to arrange an interpreter for business meetings or negotiations which involve technical or advanced business terminology.
Polish people are always delighted to hear foreigners use Polish phrases or greetings.
Here are a few that may help you when doing business in Poland:
- Dzień Dobry! [jen dough brie] = “Good Morning”, “Good Day” and “Good Afternoon”
- Dobry Wieczór! [dough bre we etch or] = “Good Evening”
- Do Widzenia! [dough vidz enya] = “Good Bye”
- Dobranoc! [dough bra nots] = “Good Night”.
- Dziękuję! [jen queue yay] = “Thank you”
- Proszę! [pro se] = “Please”
- Przepraszam! [pshep pra sham] = “Excuse me”.
Poles like to build and maintain strong relationships, especially in business. When dealing with foreign colleagues, they ask other people’s opinions. The first meeting can be quite formal as Poles carefully approach the unknown. After the ice has been broken, business meetings will become more casual. Maintaining good working relationships with all your business colleagues will be a key factor in your future success when working with Poles. Having lots of contacts and connections may also prove very helpful in future business dealings.
Business Hours and Entertaining
Generally, working hours are from 8 am to 4 pm with no lunch break. Poles tend to have their main meal after work, and in the case of business meetings, this can be extended up to a few hours when snacks and drinks would follow the main feed. Although breakfast meetings are uncommon, a business may be conducted at lunch or more often at dinner. However, do not talk about business at a meal unless your business partner/s initiate the topic. Most entertaining is done in restaurants, and invitations are hard to turn down, especially when told: “a guest in the house is God in the house”.
Poles are conservative in dress, and it is essential to look smart in business. Polish people appreciate elegance no matter your social background, so they also like to appear well-dressed in business life. Women prefer natural make-up, with no intense colours. For men, white socks are unacceptable. Wearing hats and gloves is a sign of sophistication and high standards. Smoking has become increasingly unpopular. It is seen as a sign of weakness rather than strength in social situations.
Polish people are very aware of body language, and they study it early at school. They realise the importance of eye-contact, straight posture, an open and relaxed expression and a smile. While speaking, they like to look into the listener’s eyes; while listening, they look at their lips. Often, Polish people will not show much expression when listening, but this should not be misinterpreted as a lack of interest as it is merely a cultural difference. For example, fidgeting and showing impatience, like playing with a pen during a speech, are noticed immediately.
Shaking hands plays an essential role in the business (although it is considered bad luck to shake hands over a threshold). It is common everywhere, any time, regardless of gender or rank. You might notice that even colleagues in the office welcome each other with this gesture every morning: a firm and confident handshake manifests trust, respect and politeness.
Gender equality is not as advanced in Poland as in other European nations, and more men in senior positions than women will come across. It is also important to note that men in Poland often treat female colleagues with exaggerated respect and display chivalric behaviour, including gestures such as kissing women’s hands upon meeting. Women are also always allowed to enter a building or an office first. They also stand up first, initiate handshakes (unless they are in a lower position in a company) and usually count on having doors opened before them. Women may also expect men to carry their luggage and help them get out of a car by supporting their arms.
Proper use of titles and qualifications is essential in business circles in Poland, so make sure you use these and have your own printed on your business card.
Punctuality is a virtue, so Polish business people are never late. They communicate it with their business partners on time (via phone, assistant or another message). Traditionally, fifteen minutes are permissible if there is a suitable explanation. However, lateness is not accepted in business.
Managers are trained in giving presentations and lectures, so you will find them fully prepared and aware of their audience. They usually have no notes because they have to know the topic perfectly. Managers’ good knowledge of English allows them to avoid misunderstandings and helps them use their sense of humour, which is a common thing in Poland. Nevertheless, you should be prepared for racist jokes and remarks sometimes.
When presenting, one should be clear, concise and very well-prepared. You should misinterpret a lack of expression or body language in meetings as a lack of interest. This is merely a cultural characteristic.
Making notes during presentations may be disturbing, so avoid it. You will usually receive a handout with a summary of the discussed topic, which helps to remind you of any emerging questions. Eating during a meeting is very rare, although you will have access to small snacks, coffee, tea and other drinks. Coffee and tea will be served with milk in a separate container since not everyone likes this white.
Polish communication style is straightforward, so you should expect people to speak their minds during meetings and negotiations.
Polish businesspeople both like and try to speak English. They are pleased and confident when using this language as a communication tool but might want to impress you with their knowledge. In communicating ideas, they are straightforward, logical and precise, and when responding to a question or debate, they may take the time to formulate a logical, rational answer. Poles do not like to repeat themselves.
Asking good questions is a sign of intelligence in Poland, but asking questions about apparent things indicates the opposite.
Conversation Topics and Taboos
Casual conversation and small talk are always welcome in Poland. Poles would be flattered at the mention of the late Pope, John Paul II (who is highly revered in this 95% Roman Catholic country). Also, composer Frederic Chopin is a national treasure and a source of great pride. Expressing a genuine appreciation of his work is a terrific icebreaker. Additionally, conversations about food, sport, and Poland’s beauty are good topics for discussion, while anti-Semitism, sex, and religion are not. Remember never to talk business over food unless your Polish partners bring the subject.
Gifts are very often used to express respect. Traditionally, gifts are given at the end of the meeting and usually represent something about Poland, the company or people you work with (a guidebook with illustrations, a photo album, produce from the area you are visiting, etc.). Nowadays, people avoid giving wine or vodka. Gifts should not be overly expensive.
Polish cuisine is based on traditional meals from both Poland and its neighbouring countries, so don’t be surprised if you see German, Ukrainian and Slovakian food as part of a meal. Poles like soups and meats, though dressings are usually relatively light. Polish people always eat a lot of salads and drink natural juices. Poland has a tradition of drinking beer and vodka. It might be best to avoid the more potent alcohol because it is usually an evening drink, but try to taste Polish beer. They drink it at mealtimes, especially in summer. Women enter a restaurant, sit down and choose meals first. Often when they get up from the table, the male companions stand up to show their respect.
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