When I first moved to an English-speaking country one thing that drove me crazy as a Polish expat was my colleagues asking me how I was in passing, oftentimes not even waiting for an answer. For me, as a Polish speaker, this question was an invitation to a conversation and I was ready and willing to give them a full report on my well-being. It took me some time to understand that asking “How are you?” was for them interchangeable with simply saying “hello” and that I shouldn’t take it personally when they left without hearing my answer.
When starting to learn Polish you might be tempted to look up a translation of “How are you?” and simply add it to your greeting routine as you would in English. But before you do, beware that you might be actually offending your colleagues or acquaintances. Your Polish interlocutors definitely expect you to engage with the account of their day, so make sure you have the time necessary for a little chat. When you are in a hurry, simply say “dzień dobry” or “cześć,” or go for one of the other commonly used Polish greetings.
Many textbooks or online dictionaries offer “Jak się masz?” as the Polish equivalent of “How are you?” Even though grammatically correct, this phrase sounds quite stiff and unnatural to Polish speakers and you will most likely never hear it used during your trip to Poland. Here are some other phrases you should choose instead to sound more like a local:
Asking about one’s day in Polish
Jak tam? / Co tam? = What’s up?
Co u Ciebie? = How are you?
Co słychać? = How are things?
Co nowego? = What’s new?
Wszystko dobrze? = Everything’s fine?
The above questions are considered quite personal in the Polish cultural context, so by definition don’t use them during a business meeting or with people you don’t have a close relation with. Otherwise, you might be seen as intrusive.
Answering like a Pole
Dobrze = Fine
Wszystko w porządku = Everything is fine
Całkiem dobrze = Quite good
Tak sobie = So-so
Kiepsko = Not so great
When answering the “How are you?” question in English, people usually settle for a simple “fine, thanks,” leaving the details from one’s life for closer friends. In Poland, bonding over how bad things are is actually one of our favorite pastimes, regardless of the closeness to the person one is talking to. It’s quite likely that when you ask about someone’s day, they will give you a list of misfortunes that have happened to them in the past 24 hours. They definitely don’t want your sympathy, nor do they expect that you try to comfort them. Complaining is a form of Polish small talk, just like talking about the weather. Polish people are very aware of this trait and sometimes even complain about how much they are complaining.