Polish culture conundrum
October 22, 2017 12:21 AM   Subscribe

Questions about being the guest in a Polish household. Recently came back from 2 weeks abroad visiting no less than 4 sets of extended relatives in Poland. On more than a few occasions the same thing kept happening, and it wasn't great, and all signs point to culture differences. If you know the Polish hosting culture please explain to me how things were interpreted / expected by the other side since I just don't get why they acted the way they did.

Ok so apparently the Polish are known for their hospitality but honestly I just found it stressful. What would happen is that the hostess (always the lady of the house, not the man) would start offering more and more things to the point of Monty python absurdity. Please wear my slippers. Please wear my jacket. You're sick? Please take this medicine. Please take my sweater. Let me make you some coffee. They would not. stop. offering.

In essence I felt that they were really pushy and would not take no for an answer. Nor would they just calm down and stop fussing over me. I'm used to the North American style of: welcome, would you like anything? No? Ok, let's just chat then. (One hour later) say you still good for food or drink? Yes? Ok more chat then.

And example: I was going outside and it was cold. I was offered a jacket. I very politely declined as I had my own jacket. Five minutes later I was offered another jacket. Again I politely declined. Five minutes later I was insisted to wear yet another jacket even though I was already wearing my own jacket. Again I politely declined, and then the hostess glared at me. (I think my response was a puzzled dafuq?)

This happened several times, across different families. The hostess would get increasingly pushy, I would increase the polite "no" and then a glare.

Now, admittedly, I'm bracing for this kind of pushiness, so I start off by saying no a lot. I dislike what I interpret as controlling behaviour, it strikes me as so controlling even though it's friendly. In that case I can understand that maybe we get off on the wrong footing, since who goes to someone's house and then refuses any hospitality? In the jacket case, I had already accepted dinner and wine though.

I did find later in the trip that people seemed relieved if I just told them what I wanted. Like show up at their house and ask for a coffee. To me this feels like treating their place like a restaurant but this seemed to put everyone at ease so I started doing it.

Also it was more pronounced with the older generation. My husbands cousins for example did not give the glare, but were extremely generous hosts.

So, anyone with deep knowledge of the Polish culture can explain to me how the hostesses were expecting me to behave? It felt like a dance was supposed to happen and I just wasn't playing my part. My husband fared better, but there are many factors at play: his Polish is much better than mine, he lived there for a few years in early childhood, and maybe the expectations are different because he's a guy. Not that I'm going to contort myself to what they expect, but at least I'll understand their worldview so I know what the heck is going on.

I'm hoping to dig a little deeper than "they're being jerks" since that's just too easy an answer. Like, even if their actions were 100% fuelled by controlling anxiety, I find this particular cycle of thoughts/feelings/actions particularly baffling. Most days I can kind of suss out what is going on with the other person. But I'm totally blank here. One explanation a coworker suggested was that in some cultures distance is the default, where in others closeness is the default. I was being distant to start, they were being close; this felt wrong to me so I was more distant, they felt confused and responded with more attempts at closeness, and we have a cycle.

Also... as an aside... every visit included The Bringing of the Photographs.

Thanks Polish metafilter!
posted by St. Peepsburg to Human Relations (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I am not Polish, but grew up with a lot of Polish families (outside of Poland) and my family cultures can have a similar almost-oppressive hospitality. One thing that's really helped me is to accept, say, one thing in four, or to request an alternative so people don't feel shunned, and then show you're grateful for it. For example, when they offer you a jacket, it's usually because a) they want to show you are welcome, you are family, etc. (I suspect this may have something to do with cultural closeness and maybe leftover goodwill from those who lived through spare Communism where offering to share a jacket or food was a really big deal, so this may be true for the older folks you met); and maybe b) you come from X place which certainly can't have wind/snow/rain/etc. like the weather we're having in Poland now so I can't believe the coat you brought would be suitable. So I usually respond by saying "Thank you, I think this jacket will be fine, but do you have a hat/scarf/gloves that I might borrow?" And then upon return, thank them for the hat/scarf/gloves/whatever and reassure them that your coat was, in fact, fine. Same with food, e.g., "gee, I'd love more of that sauce/seasoning/sweet roll/whatever, it's so good" at a future meal. [CAUTION: This may result in a gift of gloves/hat/scarf at every future Christmas, or a serving of the sauce/bread/etc. at every meal, so make sure not to lie or say you appreciate something you really don't!]
posted by stillmoving at 2:54 AM on October 22, 2017 [16 favorites]

Just to let you know you are not alone: My dad's parents were born in Poland and as a kid they did this to me. They'd been through some very rough stuff like pogroms, WW1 and the Bolshevik war. Maybe that had something to do with it.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 3:52 AM on October 22, 2017

Same thing would happen if you happened to visit relatives in the Philippines. So this behavior isn’t purely a Polish cultural thing. You’d leave after a visit 11 lbs heavier and arms laden with gifts.
posted by HeyAllie at 5:20 AM on October 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

p.s.: Not sure if you have already done this, but another way to reduce some of the awkwardness is to bring a gift. Nothing big (in my family, for example, it could be some produce that I've been enjoying and found a good deal on--that is always especially pleasing to my older generations, or maybe something from your home city (bagels, whatever)) but a small gesture goes a long way in showing that you are interested in engaging with the family and your refusal of their offerings is then taken in a less stand-offish way. A bigger gesture might actually be offensive, but that might be more family-specific. You should also be prepared for lots of "Oh you shouldn't have," "Are you sure you can spare all of these plums/jam/etc.," "Well won't you have one with a cup of tea," etc. and then be ready to share that yes, you'd like them to have all of the plums because they're really delicious and you've been enjoying them at home, but would love to share just one now over tea with them. I think this is also helpful if there are language barriers because you're showing appreciation for their hospitality and getting to share some quality time with them.

Another thing to do is bring them some printed photos of you and your spouse, your home/travels, etc., if they're photo album people. Older folks and kids especially seem to enjoy this as they're often not as plugged in to digital photos/social media as younger folks, or digital stuff is more off-limits for little ones.
posted by stillmoving at 5:34 AM on October 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

Yes to showing up with a gift to show willing, and requesting an alternate favour (though in a very deferential way, it's a delicate dance). Wine is good if it's dinner, liquor, food and flowers otherwise.

As a Polish hostess my skin literally crawls if I see a guest be uncomfortable in any way because that means I'm a bad hostess. This usually results in every square centimetre of the table being covered in food. If you were foolish enough to brave illness rather than take a jacket, for sure I'd glare. If you're in my house, I'm responsible for your well-being. It goes much earlier than communism, to the bad roads in the middle of Europe's great forests that meant hospitality was the only alternative to dying in the snow.

As an aside, you know when you're considered a close friend when the questions about your comfort cease!
posted by I claim sanctuary at 5:52 AM on October 22, 2017 [46 favorites]

Does your jacket look thin? If it's a high-tech material that looks thin but is warmer than it looks, your hosts may have not realised that you were really warm enough.
posted by Too-Ticky at 6:23 AM on October 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Food is love to Polish mamas and grandmas. My grandma who was born in Poland in the late 19th century always made sure everyone had plenty to eat and wanted everyone to have some more. Same for my Jewish mother in law who was born in Eastern Europe somewhere, the borders kept changing. They do not feel this is being pushy, but loving. Deprivation was common in Eastern Europe for centuries, with all the unrest and wars, not just the Communist years.

When my grandma was old and very ill in the hospital, my mom brought me and my brother to visit, kids not allowed in those days, but they feared she would not make it. Grandma, who thought she was at home, urged me and my brother to go to the kitchen cabinet and take out some canned fruit which we liked. Even so ill she worried about feeding us. My Irish relatives whom we have visited were equally concerned we had enough to eat and my cousin's wife made us a huge Irish breakfast the morning we arrived. I think this exists in many cultures, especially among moms.
posted by mermayd at 6:32 AM on October 22, 2017 [7 favorites]

For what it's worth, my post war generation German aunt, who has been living in the U.K. for about 40 years now, is constantly offering me food or beverages whenever I visit - and I used to live with them at one point so I am absolutely welcome to help myself to whatever I want as well. She also makes a point of asking me what I'd like to eat when she plans menus etc. They just can't help themselves.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:52 AM on October 22, 2017

She also makes a point of asking me what I'd like to eat when she plans menus etc. They just can't help themselves.

This. My mother-in-law is in pretty much the same category and generation and when you sit at her table, plate overflowing with five of the seven foods offered, she will inquire anxiously if you have enough, and then list the two foods you did not take so you know they are there (although she know you can see them at arm’s length in front of you; as you say, she cannot help herself). Even if you have already doused your salad with oil and vinegar, she will rattle off six or eight other salad dressings should you prefer those for your seconds.

It is a different world and a different generation and probably tied into Ask/Guess Culture.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:17 AM on October 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

You're probably declining graciously, but I took the liberty of trying out some scripts [even though I'm not Polish; caveat lector.]

Hostess: "Please take some food"

Neighbor who, like hostess, knows what it's like to be hungry: "Those are truly lovely apples and they look delicious. You are so generous to offer. I ate [a barely adequate] lunch only half an hour ago, so I wouldn't be able to appreciate it that much right now. I must decline." Hostess: "Oh, please take one, we have a lot!" Neighbor: "If you're sure, then I'd love to have one later, may I take one to save?"

American: "No, thanks, I'm full." What hostess hears: [No, I already eat too much. Your food doesn't look very good to me because I've always had lots of incredibly good food available to me. I don't eat with peasants unless I absolutely have to.]

Alternate American: "Those are beautiful apples. They seem slightly more orange than the ones I've had. Did they grow near here? I made a mistake and filled up with pastry in town; I couldn't wait to try the local cake and it was good! But that apple looks wonderful. May I try it later when I can fully appreciate it?"


Hostess: "Please, take a jacket, you'll freeze!"

American: "No thanks, I'm warm enough." [Hostess may hear: ;you people don't look very clean' or 'that jacket is not as good as I'm used to wearing. Later I will laugh about your jacket with my friends.']

Alternative American: "You are such a good hostess! I have things in every pocket of this jacket which I need to get to, and if I transferred it over I'd probably make a mistake and it would take a long time anyway. That one does look much more suitable than the one I'm wearing, but I have to make do with this one for now. Don't worry, I know it doesn't look as good as yours, but at least it's warmer than it looks. [don't lie, say something like this that is _true_] However, do you have one of those apples still left? They were so beautiful and I think I might want one in about an hour; it would be wonderful to be able to eat it just before going in the museum."
posted by amtho at 7:29 AM on October 22, 2017 [30 favorites]

On the flip side, I was taught that as a guest, especially in Western Europe, it is rude not to accept a polite offering, and especially if it's food, to not eat it. As an adult I've learned to navigate this, but I have a distinct memory of choking down some kind of soda concoction given to me by a kindly elderly Austrian lady, because I'd had it drummed into me not to refuse. Similarly, my mother is always hurt when people refuse her cooking, and arguments about gluten allergies and vegans barely penetrate. It's always, "when I was a child growing up after the war people didn't have so many choices and were grateful!"
posted by Crystal Fox at 7:33 AM on October 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Born and raised Polish, here. I think you had the perfect storm of conditions making this an extreme experience for you (though it isn't, on average).

First, you were *family*, even if foreign, so that immediately removes any distance that your hosts might have otherwise kept, and they were more direct and caring/overbearing than they might be to complete strangers who are guests in their house.

Second, you were indeed *foreign* family, so that multiplies by ten the care they attempted to show you, as they want you to come out with nothing but the best impressions!! (Ironic, yes.)

Third, they were the older generation - older than you (presumably?), and older in general - this style of hospitality is definitely more entrenched in the old, traditional households and not so much among the young who feel somewhat more "cosmopolitan" due to being more exposed to other cultures (mostly Western) after the fall of communism.

Fourth, your husband was born and lived for a few years in Poland, but you weren't? I think they trusted him more to know "the system" and took him more seriously if he said he doesn't need X, whereas they might have thought as a non-Polish speaking foreign woman (who constantly refuses all favors!) you were too shy or unable to communicate well what you needed, so they insisted on providing EVERYTHING just in case.

Your observation that saying upfront what you needed helped is true - then the hosts can fulfill your need and feel better about themselves, and they are also assured that you will speak up if you need anything, so they don't feel quite as anxious to guess your mind. The other good hint above is to accept a couple of offers that you don't mind and show gratitude and compliment what you were offered (though they might end up just giving it to you, whether it's the remainder half of cake or the scarf you borrowed, so be careful :) )

Oh, and the photographs, yes! Especially for the older generation who is not so much into the emails and internets, photo albums have always been a big part of family history. Next time bring your own photos from major events of your life, like graduations, Christmases, as well pictures that show your family house, family car, etc. Not so much tropical vacation (that is a different Watching of The Photographs event, for advanced Polish students only ;) ).
posted by Ender's Friend at 7:35 AM on October 22, 2017 [16 favorites]

This also sounds like my experience growing up in the US with my Eastern European Jewish family (mostly from Poland.)
posted by Room 641-A at 7:39 AM on October 22, 2017

If you were foolish enough to brave illness rather than take a jacket, for sure I'd glare

Why? Please please humor me and explain why the glare makes sense to you in that context.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:01 AM on October 22, 2017

I'm not Polish, but: to refuse the gift when it seems clearly needed suggests that you would rather be sick, cold, hungry, etc, than accept the hospitality of the house.
posted by corb at 8:23 AM on October 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

Just to clarify: I had my own jacket. Hostess kept offering me different jackets anyways.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:33 AM on October 22, 2017

Were you wearing like a thick wool greatcoat, or were you wearing the American trend of jacket, which is thinner jackets made of better/warmer materials? I echo the poster above who said those may be read as insufficient for the weather and provoke a "their ignorance is going to make them miserable and it will be my fault if I don't fix this" attitude.
posted by corb at 8:35 AM on October 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'll answer that for you, since you didn't seem to see it yourself in the poster's comment who said "If you were foolish enough to brave illness rather than take a jacket, for sure I'd glare"...

She'd already said "that means I'm a bad hostess." and later said, "If you're in my house, I'm responsible for your well-being."... so if she saw, from what her experience suggests would lead to you getting ill, she would be blamed (and would take it to heart)- and you blatantly refusing what she considers necessary to prevent you from going hungry or getting cold, or whatever other comforts she's trying to offer you without reassurance that you have already taken care of what you need to eat, or that your own coat is warm enough (as someone explained how the new stuff looks so thin - how could it be warm?)... then you are conspiring to make her look bad - or cause her (and everyone else who is staying in the home with them, because it is never just one person who is affected) unnecessary grief and suffering by allowing yourself to fall ill while under her care. She doesn't want you to also go back home and complain about how awful your visit was, and either never return, or prevent others from wanting to come.

It's a bit like knowing that a child who always loses their mittens needs a string between them to hold them in their coat, or that the same child isn't old enough to judge the weather changes for the day when they don't want to wear a big jacket - but you (the mother/hostess) *know* that it's going to rain or snow later... or that there isn't anywhere at the location you're going that will be open or available to fulfill your hunger or certain other needs or desires once you get to where you're going... you're being foolish by not at the very least, reassuring her that you know and have prepared for these things yourself - so that she not need to worry about you.

- or just ASK why it is deemed necessary in the first place. There are some things that we all just seem to take for granted to be the norm that just *isn't* in other countries and cultures. (and I'm not talking about hospitality - it's the culture shock of realizing that you can't just walk into a coffee shop to get out of the rain, or that the distances between the house and the town are much farther than you realized, or that the roads aren't kept to the standards that we're accustomed to).
posted by itsflyable at 8:39 AM on October 22, 2017 [7 favorites]

This dynamic is common in the older generation of the Singaporean Chinese side of my family. They lived through occupation in WWII and deprivation post-war. All the explanations above apply. I think it has to do with great anxiety about someone being hungry. I know it's hard for me to truly comprehend what my mother and her family went through during and after the war, but it's the kind of thing that does scar you for life. I remember a recent comment on the blue about a First Nations grandmother who had been through residential school who would constantly press unneeded food on her children and grandchildren because she had grown up half starved and she couldn't stand the thought of them going hungry too.

I was also taught as a child that to refuse anything your host offers you is rude. This led to having to eat some pretty gross things (gross to a child, anyway).

Part of the dynamic also seems to come from being treated in a more juvenile way if your host is older than you are. Even if you're an adult, you're still expected to defer and are treated like a much younger person. That could be where the glare came from--you were frustrating your host by not knowing you had to play along. (Just FYI, the younger folks I know find it irritating too, but we usually play along. I'm not saying that's super healthy but there you have it.)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:45 AM on October 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

itsflyable answered the jacket thing perfectly. Until proven otherwise, you are considered a silly American who doesn't get Polish weather and is probably used to never walking further than 5 metres because you Americans drive everywhere. Unless you assure me your jacket is certified for hiking in the exact weather at the moment, you are either about to hurt yourself by not knowing my offer is serious, or making me feel bad on purpose. If you're answering with a curt "no", there's no way to tell which is which.

And if those were your or your husband's older relatives, the transgression is all the worse - even a strange guest is a temporary ward of the lady of the house, but you're literally a family child who's not letting them take care of you. It doesn't matter that they just met you, that just means they have years of caretaking to catch up on. It can be annoying, but next time just accept one of the first three things, it should make things easier on everyone.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:19 AM on October 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

With my non- Polish Eastern European family, there is no such thing as being old enough to make your own decisions if you have older relatives. My aunt once told me how grateful she was that her mother allowed her to travel across the country to take a class. When I did the math, I realized she was in her mid-30s at the time. So it’s quite possible their view of your wanting to wear your own jacket is that you are too young to know better.
posted by FencingGal at 10:28 AM on October 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

It might help if you could find ways to reassure the hosts that they are indeed being good hosts. You could say things like:
- Thanks for making me feel so welcome
- it's lovely to stay with you; you are an amazing host
- you've been taking such good care of me, it's wonderful
- when I get home I'm going to tell everybody / my family what a great time I had here, and what lovely food you served me

... and so on. Lay it on thick, they may think you're strange, but that's just that good old American directness, right? Like those people on soap operas, always telling their family members how much they love them. Something like that.

They might just be insecure; being a good host is a status thing, doubly so if the guests are foreigners, and possibly triple score for the guests being from a country that is seen as rich and modern.
By all means, avoid giving off the impression that what they are offering you is not good enough because you're used to 'better' stuff.

If you need to explain why your jacket is 'better', you could say that you got it from your mother. Everyone understands that motherly gifts must be worn.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:32 AM on October 22, 2017 [13 favorites]

Thank you for posing this question and for generating these useful answers. I will reframe the annoyance I sometimes feel towards an Eastern European neighbor. I like her very much but feel rising annoyance when all I want to do is pop my head in the door, and she relentlessly pushes food on me. The result is that I don't pop in as much as I would if she didn't turn every visit into an almost forced feeding session! Next visit, I'm going to regard this, not as a boundaries or intrusion issue, but as cultural generosity and social connection and get with the program!
posted by Elsie at 10:43 AM on October 22, 2017 [9 favorites]

Possible response to the jacket issue:

Hostess: "Here, please, take this jacket."
You: "Oh, my jacket is quite fine, thank you. Are you concerned about _____?" (e.g. the weather, the material, the waterproofness)
Hostess: "Of course, you'll catch your death in something that thin!"
You: "That's so kind of you to worry about my health. Really, this jacket has kept me warm in much worse weather, I'm sure I'll be fine. You're very thoughtful and I appreciate your concern."

Key parts are "are you concerned?" as an opener to get them to tell you what they're thinking, followed by multiple variations on "thank you for worrying about my health and well-being."

Possible response to being offered food immediately/in great quantity:

Expect that you will be offered food, and plan accordingly. Something that will put your hosts at ease is if you bring something for the meal, even if it's just a bar of chocolate to have with tea. Actively compliment the host's cooking. Put a little bit of everything on your plate, if you can. Effusively say how full you are and how delicious everything was, just before you're actually full. Then when you're truly finished, you can say "I have no more room" (in your stomach) or "I wish I could, but I can't eat another bite." Hopefully the verbal signal that you have eaten everything you wanted will let your host relax, but you may have to repeat it several times.
posted by danceswithlight at 11:53 AM on October 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

In my East European culture of origin, a guest will often refuse things out of politeness (history of scarceness does make it necessary, as this might be their last cup of coffee that they have in the house till next month). So, to be a good hostess, you must offer things (food, drink, etc.) several times. As a guest, if you really, truly do not want that food, drink, jacked, just refuse it politely each time. Usually they give up after about 3 offerings for each item, as at that point they trust that you really don't want it. This creates sort of a dance, and sometimes hostess can become quite pushy, but it's with best intentions.

There's also a thing about cold, especially with older generations. Getting slightly chilled = death. Certain death! So the efforts to offer you warmer clothing are ten-fold, as now we are not only talking about your comfort, but also health and your life might be at stake, I'm not kidding. It would probably be a polite thing to throw that jacket over your shoulders temporarily and then thank them for caring.

I'm nearly 40, and when I visit my parents back in my country of origin, my dad will not let me out of his apartment if it's below 45F and I'm not wearing a hat. Like physically prevent me from leaving. He just loves me so. I wear a hat just so he doesn't have to worry, even if my party hair is not allowing for it, and I will take it off once out of sight.
posted by LakeDream at 1:40 PM on October 22, 2017 [9 favorites]

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