How to Survive a Polish Dinner Party
Poles are well-known for their exceptional hospitality. An old saying has it that ‘a guest at home is God at home’, thus if you stay in Poland for at least a few days and make friends with somebody, expect to be invited to a Polish dinner almost immediately. If you want your new friendship to last for more than one evening, we strongly recommend that you go through our survival guide. Polish customs can be very tricky!
Arriving & greeting
- At school and in most homes Poles are taught to show up at appointments right on time. This is why you should arrive no more than 5 or 10 minutes late. If you're going to be later, say, 15 to 25 minutes, call the person waiting for you, and if you'll be delayed by more than 30 minutes you should think about rescheduling more formal meetings. Make sure to inform your hosts about your delay in advance.
- Why is arriving on time so important? Because no matter what the purpose of your visit is, a Polish host will surely prepare some food for you and it is very likely to be a warm dish. Feeding guests is a central pillar of Polish hospitality and no one will let you slip away with an empty stomach. Remember that it works both ways. If you invite a Pole to your place for an evening meeting, they will probably arrive starving, in order to be able to eat everything you've prepared. Hence, a bowl of salted peanuts won’t do.
- Now that you have arrived it is time to properly say ‘hi’ to everyone. First of all NEVER shake hands in the doorway! A very old but very popular superstition has it that greeting in the doorway brings bad luck and always results in a quarrel between people who do it. In the medieval era Slavs buried the ashes of the dead near the doorway so shaking hands above their burial place was regarded as infringing upon their eternal peace. Nobody is buried in the doorstep now but the tradition has remained, so step in first, and then get to kissing and hugging.
- Ladies go first but ladies are also the trickiest to greet. For men, basically the best strategy is to wait for them to decide which form of greeting they prefer. It might be a kiss on the cheek (even if you have never met them before), a handshake, a nod or once on a blue moon a hand stuck out to be kissed. The latter however is considered very old-fashioned and has met so much criticism lately that is not very likely to happen.
- With men it’s easy. Men should cordially shake hands with every man present in the room, looking them in the eyes and smiling slightly and friendly. Mind that unlike some southern parts of Europe, kissing cheeks is reserved for mixed or women-to-women greetings/goodbyes. The number of kisses is not set, but usually it’s either one or three. Giving two kisses will probably leave the face of the Pole you're kissing hanging in the air with a duck face waiting for the third.
- After being greeted you’ll be asked to move on to the dining table. The essential question now is if you are obliged to take off your shoes. It varies from home to home so the best thing to do is ask. It is a relic of communist etiquette to expect visitors to take off their shoes and give them a pair of slippers instead. Luckily, it’s fading away and it’s usually fine to go inside with your shoes on, unless it’s the middle of winter and your boots are muddy or completely soaked.
- Giving a guest a tour of the house is not very popular so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen. If you really want to see the house just ask, most hosts will be very glad to show their home to you.
Breaking the ice
- Learning a few words in Polish is the best icebreaker ever. ‘Dzień dobry’ or ‘dobry wieczór’ won’t twist your tongue and will make Poles happy that you made effort to learn something in their language, which they usually believe to be the most difficult on Earth. The more you learn the better it is but don’t go crazy, Poles like to show that they can speak foreign languages so after showing off your Polish skills let them talk in their second language. It will most likely be English but if you talk to older people it could be German and Russian. French and other Roman languages occupy further places but usually are taught as a third language.
- Little gifts are very much welcome. Make sure they are not too expensive; it is a symbolic gift, not the necessity of giving something valuable to the hosts. The best gifts are those that come from the visitors’ country and are unavailable or difficult to obtain in Poland. If you didn’t bring anything from you hometown, you can buy flowers for the hostess and a decent wine for the host. However, remember that you should always bring an odd number of flowers and never bring yellow chrysanthemums because they are traditionally brought to funerals!
- It is a certainty that if you attend a dinner in the evening you will be offered some alcohol. Accepting it is not obligatory but if you don’t want to drink you should explain the reason why and it should be something serious (pregnancy, driving, illness, medicines). Drinking alcohol is an important part of social life in Poland so avoiding it for no reason can be treated as an unwillingness to make closer friends with your hosts. This is why driving to dinner is not the best idea. When Poles go to visit their good friends, or people they would like to make good friends with, for dinner they rather take a taxi or use public transport. The reason for it is that having a dinner in someone’s private house is not a formality but a ritual that aims at transforming you and your host from acquaintances into true friends.
- Smoking habits have changed a lot in the past 10 years so you should always ask for permission to smoke inside. Just like all other countries of the European Union, Poland has adopted anti-tobacco policies and smoking is strictly forbidden almost everywhere indoors. Poland is now a country hostile to smokers, even if 15 years ago people could (and would) smoke pretty much everywhere.
- Eating starts when everybody takes a seat at the table and the host says ‘Smacznego!’ (Polish for ‘enjoy your meal!’). Answering ‘Smacznego’, no matter how much you mess up the pronunciation, is definitely a good idea. Don’t start eating first; it is regarded as poor etiquette.
- Polish mealtimes can be confusing for foreigners as they vary depending on the day of the week. On working days you will probably be invited for a supper at 7p.m. and served hot dishes. On weekend, the biggest meal of the day will be served around 3p.m. Especially on Sunday, as this is the time when whole families gather and have Sunday dinner – the most important meal of the whole week. Therefore, on weekend evenings you might be served only cold dishes, starters, and salads. Poles will just assume that you’ve already had a huge dinner a few hours ago so they don’t want to stuff you full of abundant portions of hot dishes.
- Trying at least a bite of all of the dishes is recommend. Praising the food the host prepared is in fact obligatory, no matter whether it was good or not. Taking seconds will make your Polish host both happy and proud. Be careful not to fill up your stomach with the first or second plate, though. Poles have plenty of sweet aces up in their sleeves so make sure to be able to try them when the dessert comes!
- Talking during the meal is very much welcome. However, getting into hour-long stories is not recommended because it will kill the flow of the dishes. They are served gradually at the same time for everybody (everybody starts with starters or soup, then when everybody is done the second plate comes, then salads, desert etc.). The time for telling your family saga will come after dinner.
Jokes, small talk and serious conversations
As having a conversation is a necessity it is good to know what the tricky subjects are and it’s strongly recommended to avoid them if you don’t know your host very well. The taboos are:
- Religion, law and politics: abortion, euthanasia, LGBT issues, legalisation, etc.
- Communism. Discussing it can be touchy when talking to people who were, or whose families were, communist or beneficiaries of communism. Not everybody who was a communist was evil and vice versa so it’s better not to go too deep into these things if you haven't spent a lot of time reading about 1945-1989 Polish history and if you’re not 100% sure what your host's attitude is toward this period.
- Anti-Semitism and historical Polish-Jewish relationships should be discussed with the greatest caution. The topic was never easy, is very ambiguous, and likely to be discussed with utmost reluctance. Remember to never say a word about ‘Polish concentration camps’ because there were no such thing and Poles are tired of explaining it to foreigners.
- Be extra careful when discussing the transformation process as well as judging the Polish economy and politics. Poles are used to complaining a whole lot and say the worst things about the government, recent history, Polish external policy etc., but tend to be very touchy if you join them in pouring scorn on the Polish reality. This goes beyond explaining… Just take it for granted that most Poles foreclose the right to complain about Poland.
On the opposite side of your conversation there is a particular Polish sense of humour. Poles love to tell jokes, play fun games and mock everybody around in a very warm and friendly way. Things to remember about Polish humour are:
- It’s always bitter-sweet with lots of metaphors and strongly relating to the everyday life, history, and politics of Poland. It takes time to get the hang of it but reportedly it’s worth it!
- Especially when talking to older Poles, jokes can be racist or sexist but it has nothing to do with the jokers themselves being racist or sexist. There is a very thick line between a joke and seriousness in Polish culture and jokes can be told almost about everything, including Poles themselves and their stereotypical vices. Men are much more tolerant to hearing obscene jokes than women.
Leaving and saying goodbye!
- First of all, after everybody finishes eating you’ll probably be asked to rest on the sofa and have a coffee, tea or another alcoholic drink. Remember, however, that not only is it impolite to leave the table before everybody finishes eating but also it’s very inappropriate to leave your host’s house right after eating. Dinner is just an overture to the meeting and the real talking starts here. This is the time for your family stories and the time when you can very carefully try to broach subjects you are interested in, even if they might be sensitive.
- But even leaving after a while can be very difficult. Hosts will usually always ask you to stay a bit longer, have one more drink or have one more piece of cheesecake or whatever. Thus, escaping requires some assertiveness and if you want to leave quickly you'd better have a good excuse prepared (like an early flight next day).
- Remember to say ‘Thank you’ or ‘Dziękuję’, when leaving the table. The purpose of thanking everybody around is to politely appreciate their company as well as your hosts’ efforts in preparing the meal.
- Saying goodbye is usually less official than at the beginning because if you stuck to the advice above you are now friends with your hosts and they may even want to give you a hug at the end.
- Never forget to invite your host to your home country even if you live on the other side of the globe and they are not really likely to pay you a visit. Polish friends usually take turns inviting each other and they always invite the hosts to visit them when they are leaving.
Last but not least – have fun! Poles are a friendly, open people, very interested to hear how life is back in your country as well as eager to explain to you all the intricacies of the Polish reality, history and language. Even if you do something wrong, they will probably treat you with greatest understanding and friendliness so don’t get too stressed out. Attending a Polish dinner is definitely one thing to do before you die.
Finding all these rules a little hard to take in at once? Check out our printable cheatsheet, perfect for taking with you to prevent any potential Polish faux-pas...
Author: Wojtek Oleksiak, 26th October 2015