Entrepreneurs are flocking to Poland to take advantage of the developing market. But companies need to dig a bit deeper if they want to carry out business successfully in this new EU member state.
Poland, which is among the ten new members of the European Union, seems fairly certain to maintain hold of its distinctive culture. After all, the modern Polish people, having being overrun time and again by neighbouring countries — and actually losing Poland's status as a country twice — have only enjoyed true autonomy since the fall of the USSR in 1989.
Poles are Slavs, making them quite different from their German neighbours to the West, as Slavs are generally more Latin (Roman Catholic) in their behaviour than the Protestant cultures of northern Europe.
This usually means there is a more hierarchical approach to things, although Slavs often abandon the Latin risk-aversion personality and become risk takers when opportunity arises, perhaps due to a sense of having nothing to lose.
Poland has long been a buffer state between Germany and Russia and it's said that the result of living between the bear and the wolf has made the Polish culture both defensive and suspicious and both formal and warm. Certainly, life has been difficult for Poles over the centuries.
Today, however, Poland is considered a land of opportunity, where the population is looking for products and services not offered before. Entrepreneurs are flocking to Poland to take advantage of the new market.
Almost the entire population of Poland is Roman Catholic; in fact, Poland is one of the most devout nations in Europe. Under communism, Poland was an Eastern block nation, where the strength of the church could not be contained by the ruling party. The church continues to provide an essential sense of stability for a population struggling with the challenges of building a modern democracy and capitalist system.
Like most family-concentrated societies, Poland is a relational culture. After being under the control of different powers over the years, Polish trust does not extend much beyond family or friends. Although non-Poles will receive a warm welcome, they will have to prove themselves before becoming an insider.
Therefore, relationships are the most important factor in doing business successfully in Poland. There is a strong respect for hierarchy, with structure and organization coming from above. This extends beyond the office into family life, where, for instance, women are often subordinate to men and younger to older.
Rules, while important to structure and hierarchy, are subordinate to individual relationships. Building relationships through networking is essential to effectively achieve business objectives.
In Poland, after years of outside control, rules are often considered to have been made to benefit the rulers, rather than the ruled. This sense of flexibility must be balanced with the respect for authority in a business setting.
Bargaining in not expected here, so do not offer ultimatums. Contracts should be clear and concise and translated into Polish. The first meeting is usually simply a time to get acquainted rather than to do serious business.
Poles, although warm and generous, are formal people. They expect business associates to know and appreciate established protocol and etiquette.
In Poland, titles are important, reflecting the hierarchical style of business. Do not use first names unless asked to do so. You must use pan (mister) or pani (Mrs.) plus the family name to introduce someone to strangers. [Panna (Miss) is rarely used, unless you are speaking to a child]. Women take their husband's last name, but their gender is noted by replacing the final vowel with an 'a', or adding an 'a' to the last name.
Using the informal form of the language requires a special ceremony; maintain eye contact with your colleague, link right arms, toast each other with a drink and then down the drink together. After that, you may use the informal.
Handshakes are common; between men they are more robust than between men and women. A man should wait until the woman extends her hand before shaking. Kissing is common between men and women, women and women, and sometimes men and men; three "air kisses" are the norm.
Business cards should be printed on two sides, with Polish on one side and your own language — or English — on the other. They should include any advance educational degrees you may have earned, as well as your full official title or position.
Poles generally speak calmly and softly and resent raised voices. Loud, aggressive behaviour is unacceptable, especially from women. Hand gestures are usually limited and Poles will remain formal and reserved until they get to know you.
If the decision makers are present in a meeting, then decisions can be made; otherwise, the meeting will be considered for information sharing and discussion. More important to the Poles than fancy presentations is the good feeling you leave with them when the meeting is over.
Your presentation must be clear and easily understood and it is advisable to prepare a translation into Polish. Until you see the availability of technology available in the area, it is best to arrive with presentations printed in advance.
When making decisions, Poles are likely to rely as much on their own experience, beliefs, and sense of right and wrong as they will on rules and systems. It may be valuable to provide information within your proposal that refers to other situations where similar ideas have been implemented successfully.
Doors are generally closed in Polish offices. You must knock before entering.
Women do not generally hold equal authority to men in business in Poland, but with the advent of membership in the European Union, this is changing. Up till now, women have been expected to perform more menial office tasks or lesser managerial roles.
Non-Polish women should have their credibility established prior to their visit and be prepared to comport themselves in a serious and professional manner, at least until relationships are in place.
Poles are generally prompt, although meetings often have no specific end time and can go on longer than planned. The workday generally begins as early as 8 am, but most workers go home at about 3 pm, office staff at 4 pm and managers between 4 pm and 5 pm. Most workers do not take lunch during the day and work on Saturday mornings.
Business lunches often begin around 4 pm, after office hours, and after-work social events may go on well into the night.
That said, Poles are flexible when necessary and are prepared to change schedules and agendas as situations warrant.
The business lunch or dinner is not the time to make business decisions. Wait for your Polish business associate to bring up business before speaking about it.
If you are invited to a Polish home, expect that dinner will begin at 8:30 pm and end after midnight. Your hosts will be insulted if you leave early. You should bring a gift, such as flowers or candy, with you to the dinner.
At a restaurant, the one who has done the inviting pays the bill; however, the guest is expected to make an effort to pay. If you wish to be the host (pay the bill), especially if you are a woman, slip away from the table during dinner and give your credit card to the head waiter (or equivalent) or make arrangements in advance. It is considered inappropriate for a woman to pay the bill unless she is a professional from abroad.
With the continued integration of business norms across the European Union, some of the differences between business styles across Europe will diminish. The following web pages may be of interest:
Embassy of the Polish Republic in London — Includes statements about Poland's policies towards the EU.
Embassy of Poland to the US — Includes information about doing business in Poland.
SHARRI WHITING writes and speaks in the US and Europe about international business and cross cultural issues. She guest lectures at the American University of Rome and Simmons College in Boston.