The Poles: a self portrait

National characteristics of the Poles are a reflection of the difficult history of the nation, which had a huge, and not always a positive influence on their attitudes and behavior. But some of those attitudes were also inherited from their ancestors.

Professor Wojciech Roszkowski, a historian, illuded to the historical factors affecting the national character of the Poles lack of state absolutism in the Commonwealth, the weakness of the bourgeoisie, downfall of a noble culture in the 18th century, the loss of statehood, the tradition of unsuccessful struggle for independence in the 19th century, the rapid advancement of civilization of the peasantry and the absurdities and contradictions of the People’s Republic of Poland.

 Difficult heritage
In the absence of the ethos of the middle class, with its diligence and extensive economic activities, in Poland has survived the dominant, though not always glorious, noble culture models, such as the tendency to argue at local government and parliamentary level (the term “Polish parliament” had a very pejorative meaning in Europe), brawling and extreme individualism. The last one feature was mirrored in a very popular saying that “nobleman at a farm is equal to the palatine” (means that a nobleman has no superiors in his estate and doesn’t need to respect other people).

Noblemen: coffin portraits, 17th century

Long lack of the statehood, defeats of national uprisings in the 19th century and tragedies of World War II and postwar times have created in the Poles a sense of injustice and a tendency to martyrdom.

Much could be said about the negative impact of the socialist state on the awareness of Poles. The socialist state was a creation, which gave them work, salary and housing, and cared of – at least in official propaganda – the basic needs of its citizens. On the other hand it was unfamiliar; controlling citizens and not rewarding them for their real merit but in its sole discretion (they learned that success in life depends not on work, but on the position and privileges). This is why Poles no longer felt responsible for the country and place of their residence. Treating the state as an alien creature, on whose problems you do not have any effect, led to a loss of interest in social problems, which is evidenced by the low level of participation in the elections after 1989, also at the local level. The voter turnout never exceeds 50% in Poland, except for the elections in 2007 (53.9 %), when young Poles ran to the polls in order to remove the government of Jarosław Kaczyński from the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, PiS). This is confirmed by the results of recent sociological research “Social Diagnosis 2011”, which shows that Poles are primarily focused on their own affairs and their own family, and for 20 % (!) it does not matter whether they live in a democratic society or not.

A positive legacy of the period of socialism is that living in a state of permanent economic crisis, Poles have learned resourcefulness, and many of them are perceived abroad as employees who can handle themselves well in all circumstances.  When proper conditions occurred at the end of People’s Republic of Poland, people actively began to build capitalism from the ground up, literally, from the street trade.

Satirical portrait of Poles in a “Cabaret of Olga Lipinska” (TV)

Psychological portrait of the Polish people

Psychological portrait of the Poles is a portrait rich in colors and shades, those dark as well. According to Professor Eugene Brzezicki, a psychiatrist, Poles have a skirtotymic type of personality, characterized by short-lived enthusiasm, gesture and fantasy, bravery, selflessness, perseverance and patience in difficult situations, but carelessness and recklessness in the periods of success. Another psychologist, Professor Kazimierz Dabrowski, set up his own catalog of pros and cons of a typical Pole. The disadvantages include excessive emotional excitability, suspicion and distrust, frivolity, superficiality, susceptibility to external impressions (gesture, a smile, a way of being), a tendency to extreme individuality and protests, poor organizational abilities, lack of proper self-esteem, a tendency to express opinion based on emotions and not on a rationally thought-out facts. The advantages are: a tendency to romanticism and spirituality, courage, heroism, gentleness, no cruelty, fidelity, keeping of commitments, a deep sense of freedom, self independence and individuality, as well as large capacities in various fields.

In everyday life this advantages and disadvantages combine with each other, which do not always give the best results. Examples:

  • the pursuit of freedom is strong during its absence, but gained already freedom is not always used properly (the struggle for an independency at the time of the People’s Republic of Poland, the lack of involvement in public affairs after 1989)
  • mobilization in need, but then the lack of cooperation, disputes and divisions (for example, the division of the former “Solidarity” and the hostile attitude of some activists to the former leader Lech Walesa)
  • longing for the rule of law while accepting that law-breaking behavior.


 For the average foreigner a very distinct feature of the Polish nature is religiousness. But even in this area it can be seen that there are a lot of drawbacks. As noted by sociologist Edmund Lewandowski, Polish religiosity is “intellectually shallow, selective, bigoted, and morally ineffective. (…) The most respected is the morality of the Church (participation in practice), weakly conscious morality strictly religious (evangelical ideals) and variously accepted morality of natural (associated with the Ten Commandments).

Pilgrimage to Czestochowa 2010; regional dress – Łowicz

According to the Father Jozef Tischner, Poland is dominated by “not so much religious faith, as religious hope.” An interesting view on this issue has been expressed by some American professor, who said that “Poland is a country of believers, but practicing rather in the name of love for the national tradition.” And it seems to be true because faith in Poland is rather handed down from generation to generation than the result of a deep personal reflection and identification with its dogmas. The best proof is a dismissive attitude of Poles to the precepts of religion such as the obligation to participate in weekly Mass, sexual abstinence before  marriage and banning  divorce and  use of contraceptives. (Read also: Sacrum contra profanum).

 Two Polands

 Despite these universal features it can be easily noted that the Poles are deeply divided in terms of mentality, what is perfectly illustrated by maps of political choices. And once again the dramatic history of this country – partitions and post-war migrations – plays a huge role in it. As it is clear from these maps, the division of the Poland into the conservative parts (eastern and southern Poland) and liberal (western and northern Poland) precisely coincides with the borders of the old partitions.


parliament elections 2007

orange colour – votes for liberal party Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform).

blue colour – votes for conservative party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice).


orange colour – votes for liberal candidate Bronislaw Komorowski (PO).

blue colour – votes for conservative candidate Jaroslaw Kaczyński (PiS)

Poland A

Poles from the north-western areas, so called Poland A, embracing economically well-developed lands formerly belonging to Germany (Lower Silesia, Pomerania), are the population of immigrants, mostly repatriates from territories lost by Poland after World War II in the East, as well as forced laborers in Germany, soldiers from the West, people who came from the overcrowded central Poland – now obviously their descendants. And every mobility favors liberal views, because it means openness to the world, vulnerability to any news and adoption cultural patterns on a higher level of civilization. The western and northern Poles are therefore less dependent on the opinion of the local environment, and despite their traditionally Polish (but weaker) religiousness the Catholic Church has much weaker impact on them. Not without significance for the attitude and mentality of the population living in Poland A for ages (Wielkopolska – Great Poland) was prolonged contact with the culture of Protestant Prussia and her approach to life. The result is a greater openness and economic activity, not  passively waiting for any favors from the state (formerly a tsar) or God as it is typical for Poland B.

Poland B

 The areas of eastern and southern Poland, so called Poland B, poorer, underinvested (invaders did not develop any industry here), formerly belonging to the Russian empire. This is where the conservative right wing party (PiS) wins, referring to the romantic model of patriotism, based on the sanctity of the symbols and emotions. A lack of any mobility (80 % of the population has lived there for generations) favors the preservation of traditional systems, aversion to any changes, a deep distrust of the outside world (which is not very interesting) and respect for the opinion of neighbors and a priest, who is often a guide in social and political matters. Religion is very important element influencing the political views and behavior.

Map of the votes in parliamentary elections in 2015 shows however that the current political preferences of Poles do not reflect any more traditional division into an eastern and a western Poland.

mapa powiaty sejm2015 (1)

yellow – liberal PO / blue – conservative PiS

Read also: Poles – choices (January 2018)

Political differences are responsible of the existence of two Polands, hating each other. The first one (consisting majority of educated people and those from large cities) are pro-European Union, prodemocracy, the rule of law (defense of the Constitutional Court) and liberal values.

The second Poland (supporter of the party PiS – lower educated people, mostly residents of the villages and small towns) is characterized by: a deep conservatism and traditionalism, attachment to religion, willingness to accept authoritarianism, Catholic-national patriotism and extreme distrust of other countries, particularly Germany and Russia, accused of plotting against Poland (they deeply believe in the theory of the assassination of President Lech Kaczynski in Smolensk, April 10th, 2010, by Russians).


Proponents of the theory of the assassination of Smolensk

Poles anno domini 2011

The most recent portrait of the Poles brings a sociological study entitled “Social Diagnosis 2011” (organized every two years), which is carried out by Professor Janusz Czapiński from Warsaw University. Most surprising in the current crisis, although showing a constant trend, outcome of this study shows very high (up to 80 %) level of satisfaction with the life conditions. This puts into question the traditional Polish lamentation, which makes the Pole answering to the question “what’s up?” with “the old poverty”. It is confirmed, however, the typical focus on a strictly personal matters.

The condition of the average Pole’s happiness is good health (63.7%), a successful marriage (53.2%) and children (47.2 %). Values of higher order are valued less: only 3% to the conditions of a successful life includes freedom, 4.5 % – education, 4 % – friendship.

  • The image of a modern Polish woman is very conservative. For the average Polish lady the most important values are family, children and religion. Work, friends and money are valued less than in men’s case. (Read also: Polish ladies, Polish ladies 2)
  • Poles wanting to be educated  – the percentage of people with higher education is 24 %. Poland also takes second place in the world in terms of the number of 19-year-olds who go to study (80 %).
  • Another tendency is a declining interest in religion – only 42.7 % of Poles declared participation in masses 4 or more times a month (1992 – 55.7%).
  • Every 6th student wants to emigrate from Poland.

In a case of a young Pole liberal attitudes still mingle with conservative ones.

Although he is opened to the world and has no compulsion toward the West (like his parents), knows foreign languages, he also supports the old-fashioned hierarchical structures of society.

Do you fancy a Pole?

In the light of the above data, one might ask whether Poles are likeable people. It is true that the title of the article is “Poles. A self-portrait” but it is worth quoting a few reviews of people whose life was anyhow connected with Poland.

Beketa Bojan: I like how the Poles keep their tradition, which was not destroyed by either Germany or communism.

Leib Fogelman: [I like the Poles] For independence, individuality and creativity. Had to add more discipline, the Poles would have a complete basis for the creation of capitalism.

Szabolcs Estenyi: I think the Polish role in the changes in Europe is very beautiful, with great admiration and satisfaction of looking at the emergence of new structures, changing for the better reality.

Kevin Aiston: But most important is that when you have a Polish friend, this is a friend for life and death.

 (Opinions quoted above come from: Bronislaw Tumilowicz: Za co Polak da się lubić?, „Przegląd”).

It is impossible not to appreciate the superb use of great opportunity given to Poland by access to the European Union. The breadth and scale of this opportunity are clearly visible for everybody visiting Poland today, which contradicts some popular belief that Poles cannot build anything, and that the organizational talents do not belong to this nation’s greatest strengths.

Read also: Poles protestA letter to a DutchmanYoung Poles – awakening

Renata Głuszek

Published: June 2012 / update: January – March 2016

(In the text above are used some ideas from the following articles: Bronisław Tumiłowicz: „ Za co Polak da się lubić?”; Wojciech Roszkowski:  „Jacy jesteśmy, kim być chcemy?”; Edmund Lewandowski: „Oto Polak” ; Mariusz Janicki, Wiesław Władyka: „Na żółto i na niebiesko”;  Diagnoza społeczna 2011).

Books about foreigners meeting Poland:

  • “Shortcuts to Poland” by Laura Klos-Sokol
  • “Poland through foreign eyes” by Georg van der Weyden
  • “A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland” by Michael Moran




Photo: Wikipedia, TVP, Katarzyna Olczak, Renata Głuszek, public domain

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