Formality | How to know when you should be formal

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~Nath

Depending on who you speak to, you might be surprised to hear people referring to you as either “Pan” or “Pani”. No, it’s not a nickname, it’s a formal form of address! In English, an equivalent to “Pan” would be either “Sir” or “Mr” and “Madam” or “Mrs” would be equivalent to “Pani”. They’ll always refer to this mysterious “pan” or “pani” in the third person. Sometimes it won’t be obvious that they’re talking to you. If formality wasn’t confusing enough, it’s not always obvious for learners when they should be doing the same thing when speaking to native speakers. Who should you address with the formal pan or pani and who should you address with the informal ty? Formality can be pretty confusing.

Watch this video and all will become clear:

If you’re ever unsure, here’s my super easy way to work it out:

Use “ty” with family, friends and children. Use the formal “pan” and “pani” with everyone else.

The hardest part of this rule of thumb is working out is who is a friend and who isn’t. The Polish word for “friend” describes a more intimate relationship than in other cultures. Sylwia explains exactly what friendship looks like from a Pole’s perspective in her blog post “My Friend Is Not My Przyjaciel”. Basia, one of her readers, jokes “Seems like the best thing for a non-Pole to do is just call everyone pan/pani unless you know you are named in their will.” Anna goes into great detail explaining how to navigate friendship in her post “Friends Will Be Friends”. Definitely give it a read – it’s a handy guide to the friendship minefield that is Poland. So how do you address people that you don’t know very well or at all, for example? If in doubt, opt for the more formal pan or pani until they tell you otherwise.

The unwritten rule about formality in Poland

I’m going to tell you something slightly confusing, but absolutely vital. I have broken this rule and don’t want you to receive the same disgusted look that I did. I’m going to put it in big letters, just to stress its importance.

Don’t assume that just because someone uses informal language to address you means that you can use it to address them, particularly if they’re older than you.

It’s a hierarchy thing. You should think of it this way – you have to call the Queen “Your Majesty”, but she can call you whatever she likes. I don’t know why and there may not even be a reason – it’s just the way that Poles do it. If you want to learn the Polish language and culture and you’re not doing things the way that Poles do it, you’re doing it wrong.

In short, formality is used to indicate (and elevate) status, while informal language is friendly and welcoming. On the flipside, when you use informal language, be careful who you’re being friendly to. Even asking a simple question such as “Jak sie masz?” (How are you?) would probably be considered too friendly if coming from a stranger. Using formal language is an easy way to keep the distance and avoid coming across as either too familiar or a bit creepy.

TL;DR

You should use informal language with family, friends and children and use formal language with everyone else – until you’re told not to.

When have you had to use formal language?

I hate using formal language, simply because I don’t like the distance that comes with the formality. I rarely have to speak formally, because I fortunately mostly speak Polish with friends, family and children. If you’re still unsure about when to use formal language, download one of my Polish Perfection Packs so that you have plenty of practice using both. When have you had to use formal language? Let me know in the comments.

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