Business culture Poland

When attending a business meeting in a foreign country, it is advisable to ask yourself a few questions that will be helpful in preparing for the meeting and remind you of cultural differences that you should be sensitive to:

  • What are the local attitudes to business?
  • How should you go about organising a meeting?
  • How do you greet people?
  • How should you run a meeting?
  • What do you need to think about when conducting negotiations?
  • What should you do after a meeting?

Importance of business meetings

The Polish management style is very hierarchical, so it is best to make sure you are meeting with the appropriate decision maker and not a subordinate who then reports to the general manager. This will speed up the decision making process.

Visiting female executives can expect to be treated differently by older male counterparts who hold with more traditional forms of behaviour, such as kissing a woman on the hand when introduced. However, business women may feel that they are being patronized. Few women have reached positions of authority in business; so many men are not used to interacting with women on a basis of equality.

During a business meeting, Poles may not hide their emotions, especially if they are irritated, frustrated or angry. Foreign visitors should be aware that it is a normal to demonstrate such openness and should not be startled or offended by it. Indeed, a condescending attitude, an “only I know what’s best” mentality, and stubbornness will be poorly received and most likely isolate one from essential business contacts.

You should avoid jokes at a first meeting and focus your presentation on background information, facts and technical details.
The initial visit tends to be fairly short, because Polish businesses want to know what the purpose of the visit is and what type of relationship their counterparts are hoping to develop before deciding to proceed. They may even ask for pricing information up front.

In all likelihood, they will let you (the visitors) know that they do not have the finances to buy your products or services, but will be prepared to discuss alternatives, such as setting up a joint venture or acting as agents on your behalf. All written documents, even thank you notes, should be translated into Polish.

Business meeting planning

It is very important to call the Polish business that you are visiting upon arrival in the country, to confirm your meeting. Generally, you will want to remind them a day before your scheduled appointment.

The most productive times for business meetings are in the mornings between 10am and 12pm, and the afternoons between 2pm and 4pm. The best months for doing business in Poland are September through to May. Avoid June, July, and August, where possible, so that you do not run into conflicts with your contacts summer holidays.

If a meeting takes place in the morning, you will usually be served coffee or tea and biscuits. If a meeting is after lunch, do not be surprised if you are offered an alcoholic drink like brandy. You should accept a drink if offered, so as not to offend your host, but you can leave the drink unfinished and just take a small sip. If any language difficulties are anticipated, you should arrange for an interpreter to be present at the meeting.

Negotiation process

  • Communication in Polish society is ‘low context’, meaning that they usually speak frankly and can be very direct when it comes to saying ‘no’.
  • Polish business people often exhibit features of both the relationship-focused and deal-focused approaches to business, which is a fairly unusual combination of cultural traits. While it is important to build strong relationships, Polish negotiators tend to be verbally direct at the bargaining table
  • Never be condescending or offer an ultimatum because bargaining is not the Polish style. Avoid raising your voice and pounding the table during negotiations; instead be ready for friendly but pointed negotiations.
  • Maintain eye contact with a direct gaze across the negotiating table that is less intense than in the Middle East and southern Europe, but more direct than in East and Southeast Asia.
  • The time needed for negotiation will depend on the attitudes of both sides and how flexible each side is willing to be.
  • The negotiating process usually takes longer when dealing with the government or public sector than when doing business with the private sector.
  • All important decisions will ultimately be decided by the senior executive or owner of the business.

Meeting protocol

  • When shaking hands with your host, you should make direct eye contact and state your name. Pleasantries such as “how are you?” are unnecessary in these situations and may be confusing, as Poles take these questions literally.
  • Maintain direct eye contact whenever eye contact is made with you, especially when toasting.
  • Your handshake should be firm and it is customary to shake hands with all those present. As a rule, the first few minutes of any gathering are taken up with everyone greeting everyone else. Some people (usually men in higher positions) will use both hands for the handshake. This is meant to show a positive attitude and good disposition towards the person they are greeting.
  • The use of business cards is common. Include any advanced degrees, professional accreditations and your full title on your business card. There is no need for cards to be printed in Polish. However, Polish companies translate their business cards into English on the reverse.
  • When introduced, either address your counterparts by their professional or academic title plus family name or Pan (Mr.) and Pani (Mrs.) plus the family name.
  • While it is not uncommon for a Polish man to kiss a woman’s hand, it is not customary for all foreign businessmen to kiss the hand of a female Polish colleague, so extending a compliment will certainly help to build a proper relationship.
  • Do not shake hands in a doorway as Poles believe it brings bad luck.
  • You are expected before you leave a group meeting to shake hands with everyone individually. A “group wave” will not be appreciated.
  • The most common greeting is Dzien dobry (pronounced Djane daubry), which literally means “good day.” Do widzenia (pronounced da vidjaneya) means “goodbye.”

How to run a business meeting

In business discussions, Poles usually move fairly quickly to substantive issues and presentations need not be fancy, as long as they are clear and easily understood. Presenting in English is fine, as long as supporting documentation is provided in Polish if at all possible.

It is important to carry samples for demonstration purposes while visiting Poland or to send samples to a prospective buyer/agent by consignment to elicit interest. Normal international customs procedures will apply to any shipped goods.

Follow up letter after meeting with client

Once a business arrangement, partnership or joint venture has been agreed, the planning and timing of relevant tasks, deadlines, and future meetings need to be formulated very clearly, ensuring full compliance and minutes of the meeting should be circulated for all participants to read.

It is very important to ensure that the Polish partner is fully aware of the importance of complying with agreed deadlines. This is because Poles, on the whole, are not good at keeping in touch, sending confirmations of received letters, faxes and e-mails or responding to telephone calls. On the other hand, Poles are extremely good at improvising and this can help to mitigate unforeseeable problems.

Business meals

Business entertainment is taken seriously in Poland, because Poles are proud of their many regional varieties of food and are very eager to share them with visitors. There are many upscale restaurants where business lunches or dinners can be organised. We have included it as a separate section because formal meals can represent an opportunity to develop social relationship, which, as we all know, can be essential for strengthening any long-term business partnership. But this aspect presents a whole series of questions. Who pays? Should you offer to pay? When and what to eat? Could you refuse a specific dish? Can you discuss business at the table during the meal or when is it most appropriate?

  • Attitudes to business meals

It is common practice to host business meals at a local restaurant at whatever time best suits the participants and meeting schedule. If a business meeting is being held in the office and there is no time to go to restaurant, then a variety of foods including salads, sandwiches, fruit, and a selection of cakes will usually be served.

  • Restaurant etiquette

Foreign business partners will usually be taken for a meal to a good restaurant. The host will choose the place, make the reservations and pay for the meal. Everybody usually orders what they want, but if it is a traditional Polish restaurant and the visitor is not familiar with the dishes on the menu, the host may offer suggestions. The seating arrangement is casual, but it is usual for men to wait for the women sit down first. Smart and formal dress is expected from everyone.
Discussions start after the food has been ordered and continues throughout the meal. Any verbal agreements made during the meal will be honoured and the relevant contract signed in the office at the next meeting.

  • Food and drink

Usually, guests start eating when the host says ‘Smacznego’, which can be translated as ‘enjoy your meal’ or bon appétit.
A traditional Polish meal starts with soup (zupa), followed by a main course with meat (cutlets) served with cooked (boiled) potatoes or dumplings. Pickles and sauerkraut are popular side dishes and dessert options will often include ice cream, cheesecake, apple pie and “makowiec”, a poppy-seed cake.

Vodka is the drink served to celebrate something special. It is drunk chilled, on its own, or mixed with orange or apple juice. The best Polish beers are Zywiec and Okocim.

  • Other issues (including restaurant vs. Home)

Credit cards are not the norm; so it is a good idea to find out beforehand if the restaurant accepts them. As for tipping, 10% of the total bill is usually expected, but not required. Obviously, if the bill is high, then the amount of the tip is left to the discretion of the person paying.
Smoking is allowed in most restaurants, which often have a small non-smoking section. Most people prefer to have a lunch or dinner meeting in restaurant rather than at home.

Business meeting tips

  • Polish people are very keen to show that they speak foreign languages and will make an effort to speak English to make their counterparts feel welcome. It is very important however, that the correspondence and final negotiations are really well understood. Therefore, everything has to be put in writing and in both languages.
  • There is a gap in the business culture between the major cities and small towns. In the cities, people are less likely to find time to build a relationship; whereas, in the smaller places, family run businesses have a much more traditional and warm approach to hospitality. The younger generation are more familiar with the Western European and American styles of conducting business than the older generation.Do not send unsolicited faxes or letters written in English in the hope that they will reach the right person. In most cases, they will not be answered. If there is someone in the company who can speak English, make sure that the message is addressed to that person. Make a follow up telephone call. Polish people like personal contact and will respond to it, if interested in your proposal.
  • When setting up an appointment, bear in mind that Poland is a big country and you will need to allow for plenty of travel time. Make sure that you can get to your destination by train or car and find out how long it will take to get there. The railway network is relatively cheap and comfortable, but Polish roads are not up to European standards.