Wednesday, 8 December 2010


Sweeping generalisations, value judgments and stereotyping are the stock-in-trade of the blogger. And exaggeration and simplification are rhetorical tools in use from before the dawn of journalism. (A sweeping generalisation in itself!)

However here, I have to force myself, with the goal of delivering meaningful insights into everyday life in Poland, to pass my observations through a filter of cultural sensitivity. Pointing a satirical finger at Polish phenomena may win a quick laugh from my British or North American readers, but these phenomena so often have at their core some painful historical truths.

Nor should I mock the English of people who've worked much harder to acquire the language skills than have than native speakers of English, who acquired their language skills effortlessly. And here I must also confess that my less-than-100%-perfect Polish was learnt with a lot less effort than that of those ex-pats with Polish wives who've strived extremely hard to acquire the local language.

It is said by English writers about Poland that Poles are notoriously prickly about criticism of their country by foreigners. The Economist's Edward Lucas (who knows Poland exceptionally well, and speaks Polish having studied in Poland) says he is regularly criticised by Poles for saying how good things are here ("you live in fancy Warsaw hotels and know nothing of the poverty and deprivation of small-town Poland") and for saying how bad things are here ("you know nothing of the tragic history we've endured"). Finding an objective balance is especially difficult to do for a foreign writer commenting on Poland.

Sometimes humour is a useful tool for highlighting salient features of Polish life - but beware - the joke may well fall flat and your reader mistaking gentle teasing for sarcasm and takes offence. Or the cultural references used are completely lost on our Polish readers ("Dad's Army? The Simpsons?") Or a word-play lost in translation. Tread carefully here!

Analysing the dangers of writing for a mixed Polish and non-Polish readership, I conclude that the roots of the problem lie in differences going back to our early years. Those who spent the formative part of their lives - and indeed for anyone between 40 and 90, the greater part of their lives - in the communist system, will see things differently to those who by accident of birth were born in the bountiful West.

Above all, communism was a system in which everyone was supposed to be equal - and to a great degree it was so. In 1989, inequality in Poland (defined as the difference in wealth between the poorest and richest quintile of society) was - officially - lower than any country on earth apart from Japan. And communism's message of material equality was bolstered by the Catholic church's strong message of spiritual equality. How different, then, to the notion of inequality as the norm imbibed in the dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hindmost secular, capitalist world!

Worldviews acquired in childhood are hard to reconfigure. I guess that there's less of a difference between the way that today's young Poles see the world and their counterparts in the West do than between the way their parents and grandparents see it compared to how middle-aged and elderly Westerners do. In particular the desirability of social equality. But then time will blur differences between Poland and the West, time will reconcile, dialogue will heal.


basia said...

I sometimes ponder the thin line you tread in your blog. Tricky.

I am very much North American in outlook, values and orientation, but my tolerance for insensitive remarks by "Anglos" about Poland or things Polish is extremely low.

I show an equal level of annoyance at Poles residing in Canada who like to complain and put down my country.

I guess I'm a switch-hitter. :)

Paddy said...

I keep coming back to this post, from the point of view of a balance of opinion. I doubt anyone truly escapes those formative early years when circumstance and perspective forge one's identity forever.