Along the coastline of the Baltic Sea in northeastern Europe lies Poland, a country with a varied landscape that includes beautiful beaches, glacial lakes and mountains, and much more. An extensive flatland, known locally as the Polish Plain, covers most of the northern and central portions of the country. The southern area of Poland is mountainous, with a sandy region known as the Blędów Desert. The country’s climate is generally considered to be temperate due to its geographical position. It has four distinct seasons, with bitterly cold winters and relatively hot, humid, and rainy summers.
Poland stands as a buffer between Germany and Russia, two great adversaries in European history, and its geography has played a significant role in the formation of the Polish psyche. The Polish people have had to fight for their sovereignty time and time again as Germany moved east against Russia, and as Russia moved west against Germany. As part of their struggle, they have formed close alliances with nearby countries -- Lithuania, Ukraine, and Sweden -- sometimes being protected by them, at other times being absorbed. Yet Polish culture has remained unique.
Polish people tend to speak softly, slowly, and calmly. It is considered disrespectful and immature to raise one’s voice, and it is especially important for women that they not appear loud or assertive. All individuals are expected to maintain decorum when in public; loud, disruptive behavior, even boisterous laughter, is considered rude. The handshake is common in greetings, and the Polish handshake is like the German one: a firm grip with several quick shakes, though not as robustly between men and women, or women and women. Eye contact during the introduction is very important, and as long as one is being addressed, that person is expected to maintain eye contact.
Conservatism and respect for family cause Polish people to be polite and detached in social interactions. Greetings and courtesies reflect a clear line between the public and the private sphere. Formal greetings in Poland tend to apply to anyone outside of immediate friends and family. Usually a third party will make introductions in these instances.
Poland's history of war, poverty, tyranny, and harsh weather has created a sense that time is an enemy. There is an imperative to be punctual, meet deadlines, and complete deals in good time, which has been bolstered by Poland's embrace of the free market after the fall of communism.
Poland is a very religious country, and it takes its national holidays very seriously. The needs of families are placed above other obligations. The division between work and personal life is much more clearly defined than in many other Western cultures. Polish people work hard and with dedication, but you can forget Sundays for business engagements -- this day is reserved for family activities.
Unlike formal engagements, when invited to someone's home it is customary to to arrive five to 15 minutes after the stated time. As far as gifts go, bringing vodka to a dinner party is often seen as rude. Gifts given by foreign businesspeople are seldom branded with a corporate logo, as this is considered crass. In a corporate context, any items offered between initial and final gifts could be construed as a bribe.
The official language of Poland is Polish; however, language use differed in the past because of border changes and movement of the population. Many languages are officially recognized, including Armenian, Belarusian, Czech, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Russian, Slovak, and Ukrainian. Polish is a West Slavic language with four or five main dialects. The Polish language has been influenced by other languages, including French, Latin, Czech, Italian, German, Hungarian, English, and Turkish. Communication in English is improving, but is still very limited among elderly people or outside of major cities in places not frequented by expatriates.
Swiftness and directness are the two principals of Polish industry. Meetings typically begin at the agreed time, especially if the executives are young and have been exposed to Western business practices. For this reason, it is expected of foreign partners to arrive on time as proof of their commitment. Tardiness is thought to waste other people's time as much as one's own and to squander opportunities to make money. Business meetings proceed rapidly, with all contributions unambiguous and to the point.
There are generally three types of Polish businesses: former state-run monopoly enterprises, which are fairly large and clearly influenced by the communist-era centralized system; foreign-capital-funded subsidiaries, which involve a parent company from another country; and local startups, which move quickly, with less process and a less complex hierarchy. Knowing the type and history of the company you hope to conduct business with will help you know what to expect in terms of protocol and business strategy as you approach the interaction.
Polish people tend to judge others by their personal qualities, meaning they will try to understand your team members as individuals, and they expect honesty and trust to be the cornerstone of all business dealings. Education and family status are other areas the Polish will pay attention to -- foreigners are more successful emphasizing their academic and personal achievements than their monetary wealth.
Relationships and trust building are important components of the business process in Poland. Several meetings will take place before you and your Polish counterparts broach the subject of business. Meetings typically begin with a period of small talk, as opposed to getting directly into business. After a meeting, it's common for there to be another session of small talk. Periods of silence are common during meetings with Polish executives. There are not necessarily a bad sign, and it is important to not rush to fill them with unnecessary talk.
Typical properties range from small apartments to semidetached and detached houses. Apartments or flats are usually more available and centrally located than family houses. Air conditioning in Poland is not common, although landlords, especially in Warsaw, are beginning to understand the need for it and have begun to improve their properties by installing this amenity. In a furnished property, the bathroom and kitchen are fully furnished and equipped, and the bedrooms, living room, and dining room have furniture. It is possible to negotiate with the landlord in the event any items are missing.
Landlords require tenants to pay the first month’s rent and a security deposit before moving in. The security deposit can be equal to one to three months' rent depending on the landlord’s stipulations and whether pets are included, whether the rental is furnished, and other normal lease conditions. The typical lease period is a minimum of one year, and landlords have 30 days to return the security deposit after termination.
Payments related to the lease are usually done by bank transfer. Taxes are always included in the rent, and it is the responsibility of the landlord to pay them. Rent is usually paid per month, but in some cases, quarterly payments may be requested. A fee of monthly rent plus a 23 percent value-added tax (VAT) is associated if the property is rented with the help of a real estate agency. Renters need to be careful with properties advertised on the internet, as they likely do not reflect the reality of the market. Some of the most attractive offers turn out to be listed without tax, have inaccurate pictures of the property, or are not even available.
Major cities offer an abundant selection of shopping centers located in different districts. In Warsaw, there are more than 20 centers, all of which are open seven days a week. The approximate opening times of large department stores are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day and on weekends, but they will be closed on public holidays. Smaller shops are open from 6 or 9 a.m. until 6 or 9 p.m. every day. On weekends, opening times can be shorter, and on Sunday, shops may be closed. In general, banks are open from 9 or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, with abbreviated hours on Saturday.
Education today is in line with standard European practices. Compulsory schooling in Poland begins at age 6. All children are required to attend at least one year in pre-primary education before enrolling in regular schooling. Schools are coeducational, and Polish is the language of instruction; however, all students learn at least two foreign languages during their compulsory schooling. The academic year in Poland runs from September to June, must contain at least 42 weeks, and is split into two semesters. There are three extended holiday breaks: Christmas, winter holiday, and Easter recess.
Students progress through primary and secondary levels, and after passing a final exam, students have the option to go on to university or technical (vocational) training academies or leave school at the age of 16. While virtually 100 percent of the population in Poland is literate, advancing to higher education is not as common as in other Western European counties. Those who continue their education at a university often do so abroad.
Warsaw has a long list of international schools used by a growing number of foreign students, most of whom are children of diplomats and people working for multinational companies. Most international schools offer Polish only as an extracurricular subject, with no more than two to three classes per week. The most popular international schools in Warsaw use English as the language as instruction. The teaching methods in international schools are completely different from those in Polish schools. Problems with the language barrier are usually resolved through integration and team-building activities.
Normal precautions apply in Poland. In general, the country is safe, and visitors are unlikely to face any problems; however, petty crime does exist, and travelers should be on guard for thieves or pickpockets who often operate in major tourist areas, in large crowds, and around public buses and trains. As in any country, guard you passport, money, and mobile phone. Polish bars and dance clubs are generally safe. Do not attempt to buy narcotics, as they are illegal in Poland; and do not leave drinks or food unattended -- a spiked drink may be a prelude to the theft of valuables.
Road fatalities are high in Poland. Due to the increasing number of cars on the road, driving can be hazardous, especially after dark. Roads can be narrow, poorly lit, and in need of repair, and are often used by pedestrians and cyclists. If driving, practice caution and always keep headlights on -- they are required both day and night. U.S. drivers should have an International Driving Permit (IDP) -- an American driver's license is not enough. The license approval process by Polish authorities should take 30 days, but due to the complexity of the process, the whole procedure can drag out to three months or more.
Like other members or the European Union, Poland has a well-developed public health system coordinated by a national health ministry. While adequate medicare care is widely available, hospital facilities and nursing support are not always at the highest level. Physicians are generally well-trained, but specific emergency services may be lacking in certain regions, especially in small towns and rural areas. Younger doctors generally speak English, though nursing staff often does not. Medications are generally available, although they may not be brand-name drugs.
An expatriate employed by a Polish company on a valid working visa is entitled to use public health care services free of charge, provided the company pays social security (ZUS) contributions. These contributions are paid by both the employer and the employee. A foreign employee who does not have an employment contract but works in Poland on secondment from a foreign company, and those who are appointed to the management board of a Polish company -- including Polish companies with foreign capital -- can be exempt from paying social security contributions.
Expatriates tend to subscribe to private medical services. There are private medical centers in most major cities, and fewer in smaller towns. Many centers offer clients 24-hour appointments, 24-hour ambulance service, medical information services by telephone, emergency care, home visits, complex diagnosis examinations, and vaccination services in English. Payment is normally required upfront for consultations with a doctor and for medications. Hospital visits, on the other hand, may or may not be paid for directly by an insurance policy.
Poland has sought to lessen government regulation and restriction on its economy since 1990, and it was the only nation in the EU to avoid a recession through the 2008-09 economic downturn. While the Polish economy has performed well, growth slowed in 2012 and 2013, due in part to ongoing financial difficulties in the eurozone. In the short term, a key challenge will be finding a way to consolidate debt and spending without stifling economic growth. Over the longer term, Poland's economic performance could improve if the country addresses some of the remaining deficiencies in its road and railway infrastructures, rigid labor code, commercial court system, government red tape, and burdensome tax system.