Stiff Hierarchy


I still remember that gloomy hour when a young teenager called me ‘Ms’ for the first time. That was a definite sign that the carefree days of my childhood/youth were over. I was officially an adult. At least in the eyes of that kid…

Polish is a very rigid language concerning addressing people. There are two main linguistic forms of doing that, similar to German ‘du’ and ‘Sie’. Thus, you can address your friends ‘per ty’ (you) but you address your teachers, your friends’ parents, salespeople and all other sorts of adults using ‘Pan’ (Mr), ‘Pani’ (Ms) or ‘Państwo’ (plural).

Speaking of memories, I know how glad I was to find out that my first interview for an internship in Germany was to be held in English. The ‘Sie’ form in German might be even easier to use but, you see, the rules are not as rigid here as in Poland and I just wouldn’t know which form I was supposed to apply, especially in the case of a start-up company. To find out more about ways of addressing people in formal (and not only) situations visit our Phrases.

Another threshold on the way to adulthood is leaving high school. Until then you called your teachers ‘Ms’ or ‘Mr’ but they used the informal way to address you. Once you are at the university, you and your professors become ‘equals’, i.e. they also call you ‘Ms’ or ‘Mr’. Don’t feel too confident, though! There’s still a huge gap between you and you should now show your respect using appropriate titles, formulas etc. Somehow, in Polish there’s always a way to get even more formal and respectful.

Leaving the formal situations and the walls of office, university, store buildings etc. we now move to more familiar interiors of our own home or those of our friends. You would think it gets easier there, wouldn’t you? Well, prepare for a shock.

It isn’t common, but there are still young people in Poland who actually address their parents in the very respectful way, using the 3rd person singular: Mother, what was Mother doing yesterday? What’s more, you can also use terms of endearment in such a manner: Mommy, how is mom doing today?

If you address your parents in such a formal way, how should you treat your future in-laws? Very formally, of course! It was a dilemma for my German boyfriend when we first went to Poland together. It was obvious to me that I address my parents in most informal and familiar ways (and even call them by nicknames) but then, when I thought about it, I realized that I have always used the official and polite form when talking to my boyfriends’ or friends’ parents. It sounds awkward and leads to avoiding addressing them directly and using some impersonal creations instead but I would never dare speak to them using the informal way unless they explicitly state they wish that and encourage me to do so.

That is why it took me a while to first call my boyfriends’ parents by their first names and use the second person ‘du’. See, as I already mentioned, rules here in Germany differ from those back home. But that’s a topic for a separate article.

Funny thing, too, that my mum was actually using the polite ‘Sie’ form in German when speaking with my boyfriend, whereas normally parents of my friends use the informal one when talking to me (in 99% of cases), so it is a bit like in school, just the kids are grown-ups now. One of the reasons they still “are allowed to” use the informal way (although we’re among “adults” now) is probably the fact that they have known us for a while and still remember us as gap-toothed kiddies. Maybe that’s way my mum couldn’t apply that to my boyfriend whom she only met when he was already a “grown-up”. Anyway, I feel I need to do something about that at our next meeting, just to make the situation a bit less awkward and a bit warmer.

You can learn more about addressing people in Polish on various private occasions using Phrases.

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