You know what’s weird? Sometimes ignorance is informative. Case in point: I never knew any Polish stereotypes growing up. It was only years after I went to Poland that I heard a Polish joke for the first time, and before that, I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I was so ignorant of the stereotypes that I was incapable of stereotyping. Yay!
But then I found out there’s a massive treasure trove of, admittedly, hilarious Polish jokes. Few if any having anything to do with Polish people, of course, but that’s just how it works out. They somehow got stereotyped as being dumb, and people ran with it because they had fun coming up with clever jokes. And plenty of them are awesome.
But that just leads into another question. Are all the Polish stereotypes really true? Are they just a bunch of religious zealots who get blitzed off vodka all day every day? Are they all just unsmiling communist fanatics that want to destroy the bourgeoisie and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat? ARE THEY?!?!
Allow me to share a few points.
Polish stereotypes that aren’t (quite) true
1) Aren’t they all dumb?
This is a good place to get started, right? This is where all those Polish jokes come from, after all.
Sorry, guys. Turns out you’re just making fun of Poland because you’re dumb.
It probably has to do with the fact that most Poles in the US came over during times of horrible Hitler-related awkwardness and were poor, uneducated, and could barely speak English. Of course difficulties will ensue.
But this has nothing to do with smart or dumb, but simple language differences and socioeconomic challenges. Take anyone from anywhere on the planet in a similar position, and you’re likely to get the same result.
Oh, and they’re also responsible for Nicolaus Copernicus, Marie Curie, and Marian Rejewski. Take that.
2) Aren’t they all big drinkers?
So Polish people just guzzle vodka all day long and stumble around haphazardly all the time, right?
Poles make some absolutely spectacular vodka, so clearly they should be getting trashed all the time, but somehow they’re able to hold themselves back so much that they’re currently only the 20th biggest drinkers in the world.
They’re losing out to supposedly civilized countries like Denmark, the UK, France, and Ireland. And that’s to say nothing of their fellow Eastern European neighbors, like Hungary or the Czech Republic, who are totally leaving them behind in their sober dust.
It tends to be concentrated on the male side, though. As with many other countries, particularly those in Eastern Europe, the men (especially those with lower incomes) are doing most of the drinking, and as you might imagine, they can get pretty drunk. A small subsection of the population is doing all the heavy lifting.
But still, as a country, they’re more sober than the UK.
3) Aren’t they all religious zealots?
This one is a little nuanced. Yes, Poland is quite a religious country, with over 90% describing themselves as Catholic, and the former Pope, who was Polish, even has his own TV channel. Oh, and Poland built the world’s tallest statue of Jesus. How’s that for religious?
But on the other hand, it’s not entirely clear how “religious” they are, with one survey showing that only 7% of the population are “strong believers.” Much of the 90% Catholic statistic would thus have more to do with culture than belief.
Public opinion is also rather split on controversial issues such as abortion, with a pro-life majority and restrictive legislation, but nearly half the country expressing support for expanded legalization. So while it’s true that religion plays a significant role in society, it’s not quite as monolithic as you might expect. It’s not much different from Ireland or the US, for example.
4) Don’t they never smile?
This is something of an issue all over Eastern Europe. Stony-faced people never crack a smile no matter how adorable you think you are. In fact they’ll look at you being all smiley and think you’re ridiculous.
I’ve heard two competing theories on this one, perhaps both of which are true; first of all, in many Slavic countries, smiling doesn’t mean hello. Smiling means laughter. If someone’s smiling at you, it means he’s laughing at you.
This makes more than enough sense to me, but I’ve heard this about Eastern Europe in general (particularly in former Soviet countries, especially Russia), rather than Poland specifically, so I can only offer it as a potential explanation.
The other answer is that decades of communist rule put the country into a collective bad mood. Bureaucracy, foreign influence, food shortages, and other (un)fun stuff was quite a lot to handle, and it went on for over 50 years. And even after all that was over, with an open economy and eventual EU membership, life could still be difficult.
That’s probably the reason for the perceived grumpiness and pessimism as well. It’s tough to be happy-go-lucky all the time with all the Hitler they had to put up with.
I’ve only ever found that beneath whatever perceived stony exterior, most Eastern Europeans are happy to go out of their way to help, whether it’s to offer directions, recommend a restaurant, or give you a bottle of vodka. Perhaps several. Maybe it’s just my dashingly handsome good looks and charm, but I prefer to place my faith in humanity as well.
5) Aren’t they all communists?
Stalin basically took over the country by installing loyal communist agents in major government positions, and rigged all the elections to get the rest. Not exactly a warm welcome with open arms.
And besides, Poland took down communism from the inside through the Solidarność movement, which led the way for other Eastern Bloc countries to do the same. There was even talk of banning the communist party altogether. How’s that for communist?
Just to put it into perspective, the successor party of the former communists managed to get 8.24% of the vote in the 2011 election, whereas an American poll taken in the same year puts the approval of a communist takeover of the United States at 11%.
That’s right. America is more communist than Poland. HA!
6) Aren’t they all anti-Semitic?
This is a major sticking point for me, because I’ve spent my whole life listening to people say “Many Poles aided the Nazis in the Holocaust.” You know what else they did? Saved Jews from the Holocaust. In numbers greater than any other country on the planet.
And that’s not all. Poland was the only country in Nazi-occupied Europe in which the penalty for helping Jews was capital punishment for the entire family. The whole family. And they did it anyway.
50,000 Poles were executed for helping Jews. And these were just the ones that got caught. All in all, Poles risked their lives to save at least 450,000 Jews from the Holocaust.
Doesn’t sound so anti-Semitic now, does it?
It’s quite a problem for me, because I’ve been exposed to some pretty harsh anti-Polish sentiment, including an older Jewish man that said he refused to visit Poland because it was “bathed in the blood of the Jews.” Well, yeah, but it was also bathed in the blood of Poles saving Jews. And not a single person ever mentioned this while I was growing up. Not once.
As for today? Well, there’s actually stronger anti-Semitic sentiment in Poland than other Western European countries, though it’s often mere stereotyping rather than acts of violence. In fact the desecration of Jewish cemeteries is statistically lower in Poland than other European countries.
And you know what? Of course anti-Semitic sentiment in Poland is alive. Remember what they did with the other ones?
Yeah. No wonder there are so few of them.
So what have we learned?
So hopefully this’ll clear up at least a few Polish stereotypes that might have gotten stuck in the minds of people way off on the other side of the planet that have never visited Poland, or at least give some perspectives on how they got started, or why they might be sorta true in some cases.
It’s interesting to see things change, actually. Now that most Polish-American immigrants have all but assimilated, the jokes will likely disappear as soon as the older generation fades away, whereas blonde jokes will probably stick around forever. And Poland’s economy continues to improve, which means less and less Poles will feel the need to immigrate for better labor markets, like in the UK.
Chances are that in the future, Polish stereotypes will look quite a bit different than just the picture of the working-class immigrants that have provided most of the material. And since Poland is full of fun things to do (with a few quirky attractions worth seeking out) they’ll actually go have fun there and learn a thing or two first-hand.
Over vodka, of course. Na zdrowie!