An Analysis Of French And Polish Communicative Styles – Doing Business Within A Borderless Europe


Relations between France and Poland are very tight. Our contacts intensified in the wake of the recent accession of Poland to the European Union. The new reality of the enlarged EU breathed a new spirit to the historic ties linking our two nations.

Pierre Ménat, Ambassador of France (Warsaw Voice, July, 2005)

With a growing borderless European Continent there are many issues to consider on this march to a unified super-state. Each country (approximately 52) traditionally has its own values, beliefs, customs, and identity as well as its own language and style of communication. A monumental challenge in creating a single-state will be to combine or merge all of these national traits into a harmonious, unified nation. This article aims to compare and contrast the respective communicative styles of both French and Polish highlighting areas of similarity and possible conflict and relating the issue to the wider European context.

The Languages

France and Poland are two European countries which both hold strong national characteristics and communicative styles. The French language represents passionate, expressive romance where as Polish represents the more abrasive Slavic language family, more specifically, Polish is a member of the sub-group of Lechitic languages. In addition to being the official language of France, French is also the official language of Haiti, Luxembourg, and more than fifteen countries in Africa. The French language is one of the official languages in Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland, plus it is considered an unofficial second language in many countries such as Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Polish on the other hand, is the official language of Poland and has approximately 50 million speakers worldwide. It is also used as a second language in some parts of Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Stereotypes and Common Misconceptions

One of the most common stereotypes regarding the French character is that they are rude and aggressive when communicating with both each other and foreigners. A Telegraph newspaper article in 2005, entitled ‘Europe unites in hatred of French’ identified a number of beliefs and attitudes which other European nations held with regard to the French. According to this respected broadsheet newspaper, the British described them as chauvinists, stubborn, nannied and humorless. The Germans stated that the French were pretentious, offhand and frivolous. The Spanish saw them as cold, distant, vain and impolite. In Italy they come across as agitated, talkative and shallow, snobbish, arrogant, flesh loving, righteous and self-obsessed and the Greeks found them not very with it, egocentric bons vivants. Although the Polish are generally less revered, a recent international recruitment paper prepared in the U.K entitled ‘Understanding your Polish employees’ highlighted the core values and attitudes of the Polish people. These included national pride, religion, family, obstinacy, courage, idealism, stoicism as well as generosity and hospitality. Although widespread consensual opinion regarding the Polish character is not as strong as that of the French, the Polish are famed for their temperament (polski temperament) and tend to be straightforward, direct talking and inflexible with regard to attitude and opinion change.

Communicative Styles

A great deal of analysis looking into communicative style has occurred within the workplace. Typically, this workplace features L2 communication in an L1 context. This ideology was incorporated in the work of Beal, 1990 who found that Australian English speakers held the notion that the French were rude or arrogant after observing their workplace communication styles within Australia. Prior to this research which observed French workplace behaviours found that ‘a vigorous assertion of everyone’s viewpoint, the use of a certain verbal violence to lend those views more weight, and the clash of convictions and interest are part of normal functioning’. (d’Iribarne, 1989:29 cited in Peeters, B, 2000:198). Beal, 1993 stressed that among the French, consensus is not highly valued nor striven for in a conversation, the rationale being that consensus would indicate that a person’s objections were being suppressed and kept to themselves. A complete openness of opinion and attitude is desired by the French when communicating, whilst this creates an intense theatre of conflict, it also provides the basis for a positive exchange of frank ideas which is seen as an essentially element within French society. Like the French the Polish communicative style also values emotionality and disagreement. (Wierzbicka, 1991 cited in Goddard, C., & Wierzbicka, A. 1997:243) stated that Polish culture places a high value on the uninhibited expression of both positive and negative feelings. Opinions are usually expressed forcefully and the distinction between personal opinion and fact is perceived to be minimal or often non-existent. This need for frank expression even at the expense of being hurtful to someone is a core value within Polish communication. It is further illustrated through the use of the cultural scripts approach as proposed by Wierzbicka, 1991.

This notion is also reflected, although not directly, through the standard form of language use amongst Polish people. The imperative form is usually used when making requests or giving advice within Polish communities. Unlike in English, Polish does not have any supposed relationship between conceptions of politeness and the use of the imperative. Polish does though use a large number of diminutives to occasionally soften imperatives and add a feeling of warmth and closeness to an interaction. These diminutives are usually used when talking to someone familiar or a child. French also reflects this practice to an extent, but on a much smaller scale through the use of the intimate language forms such as ‘ty’ and ‘tu’. Polish and French people are warm and hospitable to friends and close relations but remain wary and standoffish to total outsiders. Within both French and Polish there is an elaborate system of grammatical gender featuring a basic masculine and feminine form. Polish though, distinguishes a total of five separate gender patterns: personal masculine animate non-personal masculine, inanimate masculine, feminine, and neuter.

Within Paris the French extreme honesty and directness can be witnessed through the stylized ritual of bawling people out. This is seen as an integral part of a person’s identity as a Parisian and as a means of expressing respect and value to other people. The basic rule for this ritual is; the more offensive you are the more value you assign to the other person’s existence, this also cements the fact that the two people hold a shared membership and identity as fellow Parisians and are therefore entitled to perform such a ritual by right.

This Parisian ritual is symbolic of the concept of l’engagement’ (commitment or involvement) as proposed by Beal, 1993. In terms of the French cultural scripts later proposed by Wierzbicka, 1994, the basic rules for l’engagement have been identified through the following cultural script:

Everyone has the right to have their own wishes, their own opinions, and their own feelings. But everyone has the duty to express their wishes, opinions, feelings, clearly to others, and if others want to influence them, they have the duty to defend and justify their wishes, opinions, feelings. (Beal, 1993:102)

Just like the Parisians, the Polish also have a specific communicative element that acts to cement in-group relationships and assert a common connection between relative strangers who share the Polish nationality. The Poles utilize speech genres as identified by (Bakhtin, 1986 cited in Goddard, C., & Wierzbicka, A. 1997:252). The most commonly identified Polish speech genres are those of kawal and podanie. Kawal represents a conspiratorial joke that is usually political in nature expressing solidarity whilst taking aim at the perceived common enemies of Nazi Germany or Russia. Podanie on the other hand represents a form of communication between an average citizen and an authoritative agency or governmental office. The writer will act to request favors or presents and state that they will depend on the authorities forthcoming goodwill. This podanie can be extended to any form of request directed to someone in an authoritative position. This style of Polish communication is highly reflective of life in a communist country, although the basic functions of kawal and podanie can be likened to bawling someone out in Paris in the social function which they both act to serve.

Within l’engagement exists the equally important concept of renvoyer la balle (tossing the ball back). Beal, 1994 likened this communicative method to a verbal duel in which behaviors such as point scoring, teasing, sarcasm and provocation were all essential positive attributes. This is typically observed through the French preference for overlaps, latching and cutting-in whilst the other person is speaking. Whilst such behaviour is generally considered rude in many other European cultures, the French see it as adding to the dynamic, free-flowing, expressionate nature of communication. The ‘continual interruptions in French conversation” are “in no way a matter of cutting someone off in the middle of a word or sentence… but to show my interest in the other’s remark…’ (Carroll, 1988:36). During a typical French conversation the listeners and speakers always seem to know when it is time to jump in to add their own opinions, this usually comes as soon as they know what the other person is going to say. Murata, 1994 termed this behavior as ‘cooperative interruptive behavior’. Thus, a competitive environment of quick thinking and reacting is established where all participant are vying for their time under the spotlight:

The French commit themselves in various ways: they suggest an appropriate word, they finish the other speaker’s sentence, they intervene, they start off their turn with mais ‘but’, they reinforce their speech with moi, je ‘I, for one’ and with en fait ‘as a matter of fact’ etc. (Beal, 1993:103)

The Polish also like to stand firm during a debate or conversation and see verbal communication as a duel or a test of character. The value given to a stubborn, inflexible approach to discussion can be illustrated through the Polish word for compromise, (kompromis). This holds a number of extremely negative connotations connected to a moral weakness or a deplorable lack of firmness within Polish society. It is interesting to note that the French and the Polish share many similarities in their free, duel-like unchecked expression. When we consider that Poland did not feature in (Hofstede’s, 1991 cited in Neuliep, 2000:37), ‘individualism rankings’ table. Out of the 52 countries listed France, however, ranked 11th. Based on this it could be argued that the communicative styles shown by the Polish are much more collective and nationalistic than those of the French who are acting on a much more individualistic level. It could also signal a higher level of acceptance toward confrontational behavior within France. French society can indeed be considered a society with a specifically confrontational mentality, where conflict is both tolerated and welcomed. It appears that in France, ‘co-operation and conflict are two equally necessary components in the pursuit of dialogue’. (Kerbat-Orecchioni, 1990:148 cited in Mullan, K. 2001:7).

While the French and Polish communicative style is complex, especially to the outsider who often perceives it as offensive, rude and direct, it would be wise to consider the national mentalities of these countries as a reflection of the following statement, ‘when everyone agrees, there’s nothing left to say to each other; when there is a disagreement, discussion is possible’. (Moeschler, 1985:153 cited in Mullan, K. 2001:7). This is certainly food for thought for all nationalities.

As a European super-state nears the feeling within France, among the French is constantly changing. During the 2005 referendum in France, there were many people against the new constitution treaty that would mark the next big step in a 50-year process of European economic and political integration. As a symbol of anti-European sentiment, the ‘Polish Plumber’ was created and used as a symbol of fears that France would be hurt by the treaty’s vision for a larger, more closely knit Europe. Playing on the panic of high employment, cheap labor and increased immigration the ‘Polish Plumber’ was cast as a dangerous influence from the east. Although an offensive stab at the Polish nation, the Polish government reaction was to embrace the message from France and produce a humorous tourism poster directed at the French. The poster featured a handsome Polish plumber along with the phrase – ‘Je reste en Pologne, venez nombreux’ (I am staying in Poland, do come over in numbers). This surprising and highly effective reaction was unexpected from such a stout government and illustrates the changing nature of Poland and their flexible sense of humor. The Polish sense of humor though, cannot be compared to the French sense of humor. Besemeres, 2007 stated that as a bi-racial Polish/Australian child she could never find the sense of humor in Poland that allowed her to tease others in a relentless manner. This kind of humor is much more readily found in France where teasing and criticizing of other people and nations is commonplace.


A December 2004 governmental report (cited in The Scotsman) by Frances top administrators concluded that, ‘The French no longer believe in anything…they believe that it is not even worthwhile expressing their opinions or trying to be heard any more.’ The country’s top 100 prefects continued to use words such as lifelessness, resignation, anxiety and pessimism to describe the attitudes they believe prevail in modern France today. One could look to the recent social and political disturbances within France during 2006 and 2007 to see that although not academically proven, this report holds some element of truth as to the changing nature of the French national character and mentality. Poland is also a changing social setting. Their steps forward from the dark days of communism were acknowledged when in 2003 they voted by a 75% majority to join the European Union. The president at the time, Aleksander Kwasniewski hailed the result, telling cheering crowds in Warsaw: ‘We have returned to the European family’. As further European integration occurs and migration of people continues the Polish identity, communicative language style and cultural make-up will also undoubtedly be re-born into the 21st century.


Source by Damian John Rivers

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