Cultural Lesson #1: bus seats and old ladies

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Confused about taking your first steps in Poland? Or maybe it’s been a while, but Poles still manage to surprise you? Here is our Polish savoir-SURvivre guide, prepared especially for you, in easy-to-take in installments, by our very own cultural psychology expert, Maja* and illustrated by the ever so talented Mo**.

This first episode is devoted to public transport and the specific confrontation with elderly citizens you might encounter while exploring Warsaw by bus or tram.

First of all, if you’ve already used public transport in Warsaw it’s very probable that you participated in or at least were witness to such a scene: elderly women, at first glimpse infirm and helpless, notice a free seat. The race begins. They take no prisoners and only one – the fastest and the most furious – wins.

Remember: get out of their way, live to tell the tale.

What do the defeated do? They look around and try to find the weakest link, they search for someone emphatic enough to give up their seat.

The old lady chooses the youngest and the most carefree person around (in 99% of cases it’ll be a male) and she corners him. She tries to make eye contact, she stares and hems. It’s called high context communication. In this indirect and subtle way, she tries to tell you: “Get up you lazy boy! This place is mine”. In the hands of an old lady gestures and eye contact become efficient means of persuasion.

Even if the chosen one is an aggressive bully by nature, guess what he does in this situation? He will likely stand up, mutter ‘sorry’ and offer his seat, like his mother taught him to. You may even notice some rare embarrassment on his part..

Now, if you think it’s an exception you couldn’t be farther from truth. Of course, those of you who are more assertive can stare at the ceiling or look out the window. But beware: if you somehow make eye contact with the lady, you will have to surrender.

All this turmoil has its roots in Polish cultural norms, in particular one of them: respect the elderly, especially women. They are privileged here, or at least, they should be – according to Polish values. Usually, people just give their seats to older people, pregnant or those in need. If you want to avoid strange gazes and unpleasant situations, just be nice and offer the old lady your seat (she might be a bit more shy than those in our example). You will feel like a superhero.


*Maja is currently working on her PhD in cultural psychology, teaching, taking photos, and preparing to become a coach.

**Mo Mularczyk is a freelance illustrator, working between Warsaw, Poland and Birmingham, UK. For more Mo check our her facebook page.

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