The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, March 30, 2015

Poles apart

I've just got back from a whistle-stop tour of Poland; visiting six cities in six days to talk about dictionary skills to some lovely groups of English teachers. It was my first trip to Poland and as ever, one of the most interesting things about visiting a new country for work was the reaction of the teachers to my session.

You kind of assume that teachers the world over will be much the same, and in many ways, they are, but every country throws up something slightly different. One of my very first speaking 'tours', many years ago, was to Ukraine. I was talking then too about dictionaries and dictionary skills, so I was a little surprised when at the end of each session, I had a series of really tough grammar questions thrown at me. I don't think they were trying to catch me out, they were just really into grammar and were taking the (rare) opportunity of having a native speaker on hand to ask.

In Germany, it took me a while to get used to the fact that when I got to the end of my workshop, everyone starting banging on the table. Apparently, it's the normal way to show your appreciation in Germany; the equivalent of a round of applause. A bit disconcerting though if you're not expecting it!

So what did I notice about the Poles? Well, I guess the thing that took a while to get used to was their initial demeanour. For most sessions, they arrived very quietly, with none of the chatter I'd usually expect of a gathering of teachers. They spread themselves around the room sitting separately and mostly at the back. And as I started my session, I was met with a sea of incredibly serious faces. I came to discover that in general Polish presentations (or 'lectures' as everyone kept referring to them) tend to be rather formal, serious affairs. 

And that wasn't the only cultural difference I discovered. One of the points in my session which provoked the most discussion was the issue of politeness in English and how it differs from Polish norms. It seems that Poles tend to be more direct in their interactions, not because they intend to be rude, but because of a subtly different attitude towards interaction between people.  One participant, Ewa in Gdansk, pointed me in the direction of a really interesting article which examines the Polish idea of 'assumed cooperation'. I wouldn't normally quote from the Daily Mail, but apart from a few rather stereotypical references to Polish plumbers, it's actually a good summary of a piece of academic research, in which Dr Zinken from the University of Portsmouth explains:

“One of the reasons behind the difference in phrasing questions … in each language might be because there is a strong sense of communal responsibility and solidarity in Polish culture, whereas in English culture the maintenance of every individual's privacy borders is important. While in Polish the other person's availability … is assumed, in English … the other person's availability always depends on their agreement.”

And of course, in order to secure that agreement in English, we use all kinds of rather long-winded, ‘polite’ language (Could you just pop your signature here for me, please? rather than Sign here, please.) that would just sound plain odd in Polish.

So given cultural expectations about formal ‘lectures’, I'm not quite sure what my audiences made of me pacing around and waving my hands about in a far from formal manner! By the end of most sessions though, I think they'd got the hang of my approach and the serious faces had largely turned to smiles by the time I produced my tablet to take a selfie of the gathering. Sometimes, I even managed to persuade people to hootch up closer to try and fit them all in the picture! Think my selfie technique still needs a bit of practice though ...

In Gdansk

In Wroclaw

In Krakow

In Warsaw
Thanks to everyone I met for a great week and a lovely (if rather brief) introduction to Poland!

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