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When language fails you

A guide to surviving a wedding in Poland (when you don't speak Polish)

A polish wedding and when language fails you

A wedding in Poland

Recently I travelled with my two teenagers to Poland to attend the wedding of my eldest nephew Tom and his lovely Polish fiancé, Monika. It was going to be the first time my family had all been in the same room for a significant family celebration since my parents 50th Wedding Anniversary 15 years ago. My kids and I were all really excited to share the festivities with our extended family 12,000 miles away. To be honest I was also finding it an emotional experience watching my teenagers approaching adulthood - my daughter looking stunning as a bridesmaid and my son looking like a chip off the old block in his first suit.

The difficulty with even small interactions

The difficulty with even small interactions

Before arriving at the small town where the wedding was to be held we spent some time in Warsaw the weather was quite bleak and the general atmosphere felt quite sobering. I've done a lot of travel and generally I've had minimal problems with communications, I've been able to muddle through with a few phrases. The Polish language however I found incredibly difficult to wrap my lips around, for the first time in my travelling history I struggled to even say "Please" or "Thank You" or to be able to order a beer.  It felt quite isolating. The process of ordering food (especially with a vegetarian in tow), finding directions or getting on the right bus was at times quite a challenge.

Understanding non-verbal cues

Understanding non-verbal cues

Given the difficulty I was having with these small interactions it left me wondering how we were all going to survive the wedding! Half of the guests only spoke Polish and the rest only spoke English. On top of this, Polish weddings are an all night affair, ours was kicking off at 3pm with the band being booked until 5am!

Standing in the church for the ceremony, not understanding a word the priest was saying it reminded me of the importance of non-verbal cues in communication. I didn't have to know the language to understand what was happening when the rings were exchanged and I definitely didn't need to know the language when my nephew headed in for that first married kiss. Granted I already knew these rituals associated with weddings and what they meant.

Interpreting body language

Interpreting body language

However, there was one Polish ritual which I hadn't previously experienced but was able to interpret from the body language of those involved. The parents of the bride and groom greeted the newlyweds at the door of the reception and presented them with a loaf of bread and a bowl of salt and drank a champagne toast together.  From the excitement and anticipation in the newlyweds to the mixture of pride and sadness in the parents I could tell that this was not only bestowing well wishes on the newlyweds, it was a recognition that the role of the parents was now changing. Prime responsibility for their childs welfare and happiness being passed to their new matrimonial partner.

A full faced smile, a firm handshake and strong eye contact

A full faced smile, a firm handshake and strong eye contact

As we moved into the reception and started mingling with the other guests I consciously employed what I thought were going to be my three biggest assets for this party:

  • a full faced smile
  • a firm handshake
  • and strong eye contact

I went around the room introducing myself regardless of the fact I didn't speak Polish or if they didn't speak English. It was such a powerful experience to feel the connection that came from an interaction where the language may not be easily understood but the feelings and intentions absolutely were. There was lots of smiling, handshaking and hugging and that was before the Polish Vodka shots started! In my book, The Art of Conversation, I talk about building rapport through the use of language, yet here without understanding the words I felt on the same wave length as the rest of the guests.

Preparing in advance when you know there'll be a language barrier

Prepare in advance if you know there'll be a language barrier

My nephew and his wife did a great job in organising an event where they knew there would be a language barrier. Throughout the evening there were organised games – one example had two ladies placing a t-shirt over their outfit and then being given a lipstick, they had to compete for the most number of kisses to be planted on their shirt. There was also the inter-generational dance-off where several young couples were tasked with dancing a waltz and older couples had to dance to a current hit. My sister and I were ‘voluntold' to dance to the current hit, and much to my teenagers' embarrassment we stole the show to chants of "More, more, more" and were awarded a bottle of Vodka for our efforts.

The language of love

The language of love

So whilst we all didn't speak Polish nor did we all speak English we all spoke the language of love, family, and friendship and we learned that non-verbal cues of communication can get you through a Polish wedding and a whole lot further as well. It was such a joy to be there, to be part of it, and to watch my children engaging and being immersed in the experience.

All I can say is if you get invited to a Polish wedding ... Go!

Comments

Great blog - gives great context for my current project. Enrolled as a foreign online student at the University of Peking, Beijing to learn spoken Mandarin and then move read & write Mandarin - Don't lose sight of the emotional non-verbal cues of communication. Thanks indeed. Best regards, Stephen.

Stephen Myer

13-Dec-2017 08:26 PM

Thanks Stephen and hats off to your new project. I studied Mandarin for six months when I was based in Hong Kong and travelling to China frequently. I am not a natural linguist and found it really challenging. That said, despite a very limited vocabulary, and I am sure appalling pronunciation, the people I met in China were always really appreciative that I was 'making an effort'.

Hugh Gyton

Hugh Gyton

14-Dec-2017 11:12 AM

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