Lost in conversation

I went to birthday party last Saturday. A friend I was sitting next to asked me how I have found Poland. I guess it’s time to make a little summary of my continuing migrant experience. In this post, I am going to focus on language, something I have found both fascinating and puzzling.

First an explanation. Yes, I continue to be an immigrant. Even though I now reside in the country of my birth, I actually spent more time outside it than inside it. Significantly more, if you take my conscious life and most of my adult life. And so, having felt an immigrant all the time I was in the UK, I continue to feel an immigrant here. It’s just a different country, different experience.  And it is somewhat perplexing.

As I said, I am going to write about language. It offers a sense of wonder and complete puzzlement. I am baffled more and more and all that despite the fact that I continue to be absolutely fluent in Polish. As ever, what I am writing here are only my experiences and they do not pretend to be an objective, let alone a representative account of reality.

Some time ago, I already wrote about my finding it difficult to adjust to some linguistic changes (here is the link to that post), particularly terms of address. I continue to find it difficult to accept having to address people by their first names, and having people address me by my first name. It seems the polite form has now been relegated from personal/social encounters. Indeed, at the party last Saturday, I was observing people in their forties and fifties skipping the polite form and going straight to calling each other by their first names. I find it strange.

Importantly, the first-name basis in English (at least in the UK) is different from the Polish one. I have been on first name basis with, say, all my deans and we were hardly friends. In contrast, first names in Polish carry much more friendship and intimacy. On Saturday, the party was attended by people I know (very) well, but a new couple was introduced. And everybody immediately switched to first names. Well, everybody, except me. I just could not do it. Not only did I meet them for the first time, which calls for the polite form, but they were also considerably younger than me (about 15-20 years by the look of it). That means, they don’t get to call me by my first name, unless I propose it. At least in the world I live in. Unfortunately, it seems I am the only person living there.

Even more interestingly, there was a woman in her seventies among us and she was also addressed by her first name. Not by everybody, but enough people to consider it a thing. And a very strange one.

For me, the appropriate form in such encounters would have been the use of the polite form plus the first name (Polish does offer much nuance here). So, I could be something like (in awkward translation):

Mr Dariusz.


Mr Darek.

The two forms differ in the level of intimacy, with the former being more distant. I can just about live with the latter one, but that’s it.

What’s even more interesting is that this form, mostly used in social/personal contexts, has now moved to semi-public encounters, such as shops, restaurants, contractors. I’ve been called like that by receptionists, waiters, shop-assistants – inevitably to my complete amazement. What happened to linguistic distance? I am told some students use the form to address their lecturers. This is extremely inappropriate for me, but there you are.

All in all, I am witnessing a considerable move towards social intimacy, which I am not part of and I am finding it very difficult to negotiate this change. I am basically missing the social dimension of how we (or is it they?) speak in a particular context. I see the change as a significant borrowing from linguistic practices of English which is ever-present here. The problem is that when I ask friends about the status of the first-name relationship, they insist that it continues to be a marker of friendship, social closeness, absence of distance. If so, the borrowing from English seems only to be linguistic and is transplanted onto a very different set of social expectations. I do wonder what will come next.

Only occasionally does anyone make a comment, mostly encouraging giving up the polite form, but I do know that my insistence on using the polite form is noticed. On Saturday, I was the only person who used it at the party and I am sure that it was interpreted as me being somewhat unsociable and aloof.  Unfortunately, I just feel like an idiot when I start being ‘Darek’ to everybody, including people the age of my children.

Another (mostly) linguistic phenomenon I am observing is to do with politeness. When I came to the UK all those years ago, I found British politeness irritating. For me it was fake, it was farting sweet (as we would say in Polish) – people make a pretence of unnecessary courtesy which makes life artificial and complicated. Except that over the years, I have appreciated this aspect of Britishness (or Englishness?). I did take to the nuance, the subtlety of English.

There is a joke about diplomats. Diplomats are people who can kick your arse in such a way that you will enjoy the experience and look forward to the journey. This is, making some allowance for proportionality of the claim (otherwise known as toute proportion gardée), is how you speak English in England. And on the whole, I quite like it. And boy, do I miss it! All of a sudden, the nuance is gone. You can be told off in a shop, in an office, by a clerk, by anyone. I noticed that I had started using the phrase “I will not be spoken like that”, except that it’s greeted with the facial expression of What the f….are you on about?! I am finding it difficult to adjust to that as well. However, I already shouted back a couple of times in a shop after being told off by a shop assistant.

I want to be clear. I am not making a value judgement. I am not saying that Poles are ruder than Brits, and ideally, they should learn how to behave. Not at all. I am only saying that there are different ways of going about social life. And having lived in a culture valuing understatement, I am finding it difficult to adjust to one going for overstatement. But I am learning fast.

Finally, I note that people seem to swear more in semi-public contexts. I have always sworn more than others (some people say studying Polish did it to me – I use language to its full extent), so I don’t particularly mind, but the change is quite clear to me. It has moved to the media where swearwords are only half-heatedly bleeped out. Also swearing seems to have become more democratic, it’s no longer the domain of men, it continues to be, however, the domain of adults. Children continue to be told off for swearing, however their parents swear in front of them with panache.

Children are also told off for not greeting adults they know. In other words, my neighbours’ children are expected to say good morning to me when they see me and if they don’t, they will be scolded, often in front of me. I remember the practice from when I was a boy – nothing has changed, it seems. After all, our children must be on their best behaviour, and if they’re not, we must make sure that the world knows that we care about how they behave.

And so, linguistically, the last few months have been an experience of being a strange Other. It’s like being able to speak a language fluently, without hesitation, but somehow things are not right. Things are not right when I say them and when others do.  I sometimes can’t believe how British I have become – which I write with a chuckle. And so, I continue to be an immigrant, the notion of emigrating to Poland, which is quite bizarre, I must admit. And I continue to try to understand it, while the question of who I am (at least in national terms) continues to haunt me, as I ponder never really mastering English and having already lost the full mastery of Polish.

I have no conclusion. To an extent I am enjoying the ride. My life has become a linguistic experiment which, as difficult as it can be, is also quite fun to take part in.


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