In Polish culture it takes sometime before adults become familiar enough with one another to refer to each other using the equivalent of "you" ("ty", equivalent to the French "tu"). Often, people who have worked together or have lived as neighbours for years still do not use the form "you" when speaking to one another. Men are called "Pan" and women "Pani" (indirect address; as Polish nouns are declined, the form of "pan" and "pani" change depending on how they are used in a sentence).
If you do not speak Polish, be sure that any attempts to use your phrasebook involve using this formal address, even if you are talking to someone of "inferior" status, such as a waitress (if it says "Teresa" on her name-tag, call her "Pani Teresa"). If you are speaking English, and you have to use "you", and you know the Polish person's first name, try to refer to her/him as "Pani Maria" or "Pan Tomasz" when you speak about them to other people; it will indicate that you understand the rules of polite address and social distance, even if you cannot speak Polish.
This courtesy will especially be appreciated by anyone older than you are or higher status, though younger people who know English or have travelled abroad may immediately adopt a more familiar first-name (no Pan/Pani) basis with people their age, especially if they are talking in English.
Some men, particularly older men, may kiss a woman's hand when greeting or saying goodbye. Kissing a woman's hand is considered to be chivalrous by some, but is more and more often seen as outdated. Handshakes are quite common; however, it is very important to remember that men should not offer their hand to a woman - a handshake is only considered polite if the woman offers her hand to the man first.
For a more heartfelt greeting or goodbye, close friends of the opposite sex or two women will hug and kiss three times, alternating cheeks.
A fairly common practice is for people to greet each other with a dzie? dobry (good day) when entering elevators, or at the very least, saying do widzenia (goodbye) when exiting the elevator.
It is also customary to greet shop-keepers or shop-assistants with "dzie? dobry" upon entering a shop or at the beginning of a transaction at the cash register, and to say "do widzenia" before leaving the shop or after the transaction. Some Poles also use these greetings to the people standing in line when they enter a post office.
It is normal to say "dzie? dobry" when entering a compartment on the train and to say "do widzenia" when you leave the compartment at your final destination, even if you have no other interaction with your fellow-passengers for the duration of your journey.
It is customary to bring a gift when invited to someone's home. Flowers are always a good choice. Florists' kiosks are ubiquitous; be sure to get an odd number of flowers, as an even number is associated with funerals. Poles will often bring vodka or whisky, but this depends on the level of familiarity, so tread carefully.
Boxes of chocolates are also a very common present when invited to someone's home for a meal or special occasion; at First Communion time (May), you will find special boxed chocolates with First Communion pictures on them for the occasion.
It is customary to hold doors and chairs for women, as well as offering help with heavy packages (to acquaintances), getting heavy luggage down from overhead racks on the train (even strangers), and - if you know the woman - helping her on and off with her coat. Polish men, in general, have great respect for women and show women especial courtesy in these ways.
On buses and trams, seats are set aside for the elderly, handicapped, pregnant women and women travelling with very small children (who must sit on their mothers' laps). These seats are usually at the front of trams. You can find pictures indicating which seats these are.
It is permitted for anyone to sit in these seats, but the young, men and the able-bodied are expected to give up their seats to the less able, pregnant women and the elderly, especially those seats marked for such people.
Men should not wear hats indoors, in particular when entering a church. Most restaurants, museums, and other public buildings have a cloakroom, and people are expected to leave bags and outerwear there.
The practise of placing one foot on a chair while reading or studying something is very much frowned upon. You can expect to be rebuked by other passengers if you put your feet up on the seats in a train while wearing shoes (in stocking feet, it may be accepted).
It is hardly advisable to refer to Poland (as well as to some other countries like Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Hungary) as Central Europe, and not Eastern Europe. Although not very offensive, if used, it may reflect foreigners' ignorance and a certain disrespect of the history and Latin cultural heritage of the countries from the region.
Poles themselves refer to the "old" EU west of its borders as "Zachód" (West) and the states created after the break-up of the USSR as "Wschód" (East). Geographically this is borne out by drawing a line from the tip of Norway to Greece and from the Urals to the coast of Portugal.
For better or worse, Poland remains at the crossroads of Europe, right in the continent's centre. In global terms, politically, culturally and historically, Poland belongs to "the West".
Another small faux pas involves confusing Polish language with Russian or German. Poles value their language highly as it was kept at a high price during a longer period of oppressive decolonisation during the partitions and WWII. For example, this means not saying 'spasibo' or 'Danke' for 'thank you' just because you thought it was Polish or you didn't care. If you're not sure if your 'Polish' words are indeed Polish or not it would be seen as extra polite to ask.
Religion in Poland
The Poles may well be the most devoutly Catholic people in Europe. The late Pope John Paul II, in particular, is revered here, and the Church is held in generally high esteem. Bear this in mind if religion is brought up in conversation with a Pole. Also be sure to dress modestly if you enter a church, especially during services.
Poles typically dress in their "Sunday best" for Mass; dressing in sloppy or very casual clothes will be seen by many as a lack of respect unless it is clear that someone probably does not have more appropriate clothes for the occasion (for example, a poor person or a traveller).
It is generally considered offensive to enter a church for purely touristic purposes while a service is going on. Many churches that attract tourists (such as major cathedrals) post signs indicating that tour groups should not enter the church during services, but these signs may not be in your language. Also, do not talk loudly or take flash photos inside a church when there are people present kneeling in prayer (as there almost always will be).
Non-Catholics can attend Catholic worship, but should never go forward for communion (not even for a blessing - there is a general blessing at the end of Mass). Instead, non-Catholic visitors can remain seated or kneeling when the congregation goes forward.
Catholics customarily genuflect (bend the right knee, touching it to the floor) or at least stop and bow when passing in front of the tabernacle (usually behind the altar; look for a metal - usually gold - box, and for a light - often red or an oil lamp or candle - that is burning near it).
Failure to make some gesture - such as a brief pause, turning toward the tabernacle - can be seen offensive to the faithful, especially in churches where non-Catholic tourists are not common.
For the faithful, a light burning near the tabernacle indicates the presence of God in the Eucharist, inside the tabernacle. This light is burning 364 days of the year in every Catholic church (i.e., it is only turned off once per year, when the tabernacle is empty and left standing open).
Thus loud talking, running, audible conversations, eating and drinking, taking flash photos, posing for pictures or other behaviours that seem oblivious to the presence of God is highly offensive.
Men and boys should always remove their hats upon entering a Catholic church and keep them off while inside the church.
World War II and the Holocaust in Poland
The Holocaust was the genocide of European Jewry. The Nazis murdered 90% of Poland's Jews. Besides other ethnic, religious and political groups were also targeted. It is now estimated that the Germans killed 3 million Polish Jews.
Additionally, over 3 million non-Jewish Poles were also murdered, and many others were enslaved. Many members of minority groups, the intelligentsia, Roman Catholic priests, and political opponents of the Nazis were among the dead.
The Soviets (who invaded Poland shortly after the Nazis and later occupied it after the World War II) also were determined to exterminate various sections of Polish society (including, among others, members of the anti-Nazi resistance, business owners and democratic activists).
Between the census of 1939 and the census of 1945, the population of Poland had been reduced by over 30 per cent from 35 million to 23 million.
In this context, it is important to be sensitive to the fact that the time of war and Soviet occupation was a tragedy for not only Polish Jews but most all of Polish society. Poland was the only Nazi-occupied region where helping Jews was punishable by death to one's entire family - a policy that was to a large part implemented in response to the widespread solidarity between Jews and non-Jews in occupied Poland. It is seen in Poland as offensive to either accuse Poles of any complicity in the Holocaust or to downplay the sufferings of non-Jewish members of Polish society during World War II.
Similarly to Germany and Austria, displaying Nazi symbols is illegal, except when used for educational purposes, and holocaust denial is a crime in Poland; both could result in a prison sentence.
While exceptions are technically made for the Swastika when used in a religious context for Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, you may be subject to lengthy questioning by the police if you choose to wear this hated symbol of bestial oppression in Europe.
Communism in Poland
Due to the extremely painful experiences of Soviet occupation and brutal communist rule, the topic of communism (or socialism) are quite controversial and sensitive in Poland. While some tourist-oriented businesses might be playing with communist symbols or offer "communist-style tours" (especially in Cracow), many Poles see communist symbols and rhetoric as only slightly less unacceptable than Nazi swastikas or slogans.
Unlike in the West, few people in Poland (and especially few elderly people) find communist symbols romantic, funny or trendy. For most of the Poles, communist times were marked by shortages of consumer goods, state-terror and closure of borders.
Many Poles are proud of the Solidarity movement and its part in the breaking down of the European communist system. Bear these issues in mind if communism is brought up in conversation with Polish people and make sure not to disrespect anyone's memory or feelings regarding this issue.