Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Where I feel uncomfortable in Poland

After driving around with five summer tyres on the back seat of my Nissan Micra for over three weeks, I finally managed to leave work in time yesterday to get to the wulkanizator (he closes at six) and have my winter tyres changed.

I pull into the forecourt, leave the car and pop into the office - empty. Then into the workshop - empty. I'm wandering around unsure of what to do. A man I don't recognise is polishing a newish Skoda Octavia on the forecourt. He asks me: "Why doesn't Sir ask me what Sir wants?" I reply: "Now hang on a second - Sir should be asking me what I want, not the other way round. How am I to know Sir works here? For all I know, Sir may be the proud owner of this newish Skoda Octavia, and by asking Sir to change my tyres, I'd be insulting Sir!"

At this moment, I realise (once again) that I am insufficiently assertive for the rough-and-tumble of everyday life in Poland. Brought up in cheerful, polite, respectful Britain, I expect service sector employees to know their place in society. Mindful of this, by way of quid pro quo, I accord them with cheerful, polite, respectful condescension.

The above forecourt dialogue would look like this in (my idealised) Britain:
Employee: "May I help you, Sir?"
Me: "Of course you can! Could you change all my winter tyres for summer tyres while I wait?"
Employee: "Half a mo, Sir, just let me wipe the last of the wax off the Skoda an' I'll have your tyres changed in a jiffy!"

I should have handled the situation in Poland like this:
Me: "Panie - zmieni mi Pan opony na letnie - dobrze?" ("Sir will change my tyres to summer ones - good?")
Employee: (sullenly tugging forelock) "Dobrze."("Good.")

When these assertiveness situations happen to me, I immediately feel inadequate; even after ten years in Poland, I get tongue-tied, get my case-endings all wrong, hold back on demanding what I want because I still feel that politeness gets you somewhere.

Another example from yesterday. My mobile rings; its the septic tank drainage company. They were booked to empty it, but a nice young lady tells me that all the ten cubic metre trucks are busy and that they can't make it until tomorrow. I politely explain that the septic tank has been overflowing since Sunday and every time anyone flushes the toilet, more smelly excrement spills out over the drive. Plus, Pani Zosia has come in specially to let the tanker in and out. "Sorry Sir, we can't make it today - that's that." So I phone my wife (who's having a stressful day anyway) and tell her this latest bit of bad news. "Let me sort this out" she says. Five minutes later she calls back to say that a truck is on its way right now to empty our septic tank. Now why couldn't I manage that?

While I was waiting for my tyres to be changed, I went across the road to the Wild Bean Cafe at the BP petrol station for some late lunch. I ordered a beef burrito. First bite - scaldingly hot. Second bite - just right. Third bite - hmm... lukewarm. Fourth bite - decidedly cold. I stop. Should I ask the petrol station assistant to re-heat my half-eaten burrito? What should I do? I end up doing the English thing. Half my brain is telling me not to make a fuss, the other half is warning me of the dangers of eating partially cooked mincemeat. In the end, my desire to avoid a potential row wins out over considerations of hygiene. I finish the burrito. Fifth bite - glacial. Sixth bite - warmer. Final bite - OK. I wash it all down with coffee and drive home.

One hour later I'm on the bog, bitterly regretting having eaten that wretched burrito. Flush, clean bowl, flush again. It was indeed a good thing that my wife persuaded them to empty the septic tank.

At times like this I feel desperately uncomfortable in Poland. Ten years and I've not been able to acquire the brusque toughness needed to get my own way in day-to-day transactions. After all, what's so difficult in saying "To jest zimne. Pani to podgrzeje - dobrze?" ("This is cold. Madam will reheat this - good?")

This time last year:

Some welcome relief in the form of spring rain


Anonymous said...

Classic post! First mistake - ordering a burrito in Poland, Second - hoping for any semblance of 'customer service' at a garage (believe it or not, I prepared what was the first customer service training program ever delivered in Poland in 1990 - what a hoot)

Solutions - contact me and I can give you the address of a garage in Chylice where the owner is our neighbor, prices are great and he is trustworthy. Order a pierogi - when in Rome...

Good blog as always!

pinolona said...

Jeez I'll never get the assertiveness thing down. Good luck with that one.

(ps they were serving decent burrito wegentarianskie in some yuppie place in Warsaw the other day. But not sure I would trust the good bean cafe. restaurants are for food, petrol stations are for petrol. and for emergencies on bank holidays)

Michael Dembinski said...

My theory is that the more developed civilisationally a society is, the less need there is to display one's Alpha-ness. In the England of my idealised childhood, a man would doff his hat and say "after you!" in a deferential way to another person. In Poland today, when someone says "Proszę" and lets you through a door first - they are ordering you to do so, not allowing you precedence.

Anonymous said...

They are not ordering you to do so, they are being polite, saying "please". Also, if you ask for something, why this obsession with "dobrze" in your examples? The right way to request smth is to say e.g. "To jest zimne, proszę to jeszcze raz podgrzać" or "proszę mi wymienić opony na letnie." We are not rude or aggressive. I have read most of your blog in one go today and have enjoyed it enormously so far, but could not leave this entry without a comment ;-)

Michael Dembinski said...

Anon - you need to distinguish vocabulary with tone of voice. "Prosze" used as a command rather than a request. This boils down to how assertive you can be without appearing to be rude. In Poland, I would argue, that boundary is extended further than in the UK. To sum up (and to generalise, but that's what we have to trade in), Brits are more polite but also more cynical/ hypocritical than Poles.

Feel free to debate!

Anonymous said...

I just wrote a looong comment, then it all disappeared. It all boils down to this anyways: in PL, politeness IS formality. As long as you are appropriately formal, you can be as assertive as you like.

Paddy said...

Bugger - If you don't have it, I'll never get it.

Although after 6 months I've become just a little ruder in the supermarket (no longer waiting politely and smiling at Babcia as she blocks the aisle to talk to her friend) in any unfamiliar situations I fall back on to English politeness, all "dzeki" this and "dzeki" that, thus marking me out as a rippoffable goon immediately.