Poland, Where Happiness Goes To Die

Why are Poles such a gloomy and miserable lot, always assuming the worst and refusing to love thy neighbor? It turns out, cheerlessness here has deep roots.

In Krakow
In Krakow
Adam Leszczyński


WARSAW — A sudden explosion of frustration from 21-year-old Polish tennis star Jerzy Janowicz, ranked No. 51 in the world, surprised journalists after his recent Davis Cup upset to an unknown Croatian junior ranked No. 668.

"Maybe our expectations are higher than the actual potential of Polish tennis?" one journalist suggested at a press conference, unleashing a stream of reproaches from the young athlete. "We live in a country with no perspectives about sport, business or private life!" Janowicz shouted. As the room fell silent, he continued his diatribe by angrily asserting that young people think only about leaving Poland. "People have to work, and there is no support offered in sport or any other profession," he said. "So how can you have any expectations at all?"

Is Poland a land of lost opportunities, as Janowicz suggests? As our economy blooms, we move to bigger houses and drive better cars on new highways. Yet many foreigners see us as gloomy, unkind and frustrated.

"Each time I come here, I feel like I'm in a mental institution," says Professor Philip Zimbardo, a world-renown social psychologist from Stanford University. "Nobody smiles, and people mutter instead of responding."

During this year's Malta Arts Festival in Poznan, I spoke to Mario Galdamez, who came to Poland in 1977 to escape the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. He said that when he strolled down Polish streets, everybody looked to him like they had just left a funeral. Yes, that was the first impression our country made on a refugee of a bloody dictatorship.

And a Congo citizen named Pierre, a dance teacher who has been living in Poland for several years, says that that racism isn't what bothers him most about this country. "In Congo, we dance a lot, and hip movements are the basic step that symbolize the joy of life," he says. "When I show it during a class, I am sure that no Polish person will come back."

Any search for an explanation about the gloomy Polish outlook on life finds several seemingly obvious conclusions. One of them is the chilly climate, though people in a decidedly freezing Canada seem to be happier than we are.

In Krakow — Photo: sixtwelve

Drilling further, perhaps poverty helps to explain the kind of collective distress that outsiders describe. In Poland, we earn just one-fourth of what our German neighbors do. According to an OECD survey, we work 100 hours a year more than Americans, whose incomes are nevertheless a third higher. People in rich nations such as Denmark and Norway work an average of 1,400 hours per year, almost 500 hours less than Polish people.

In addition, as we travel, we can easily compare our quality of life with the world's richest countries, which makes us even more annoyed with the sad state of roads and other infrastructure and services in our homeland.

Still, if poverty has anything to do with it, why would people from Congo be any more cheerful than we are?

Those on the right denounce our former history of communism under Soviet rule as the origin of our suspicious nature and indifference to others. The left blames our capitalist culture for making people treat each other as rivals. These hypotheses, of course, are not mutually exclusive.

The thrill's been long gone

In fact, Polish gloominess has long roots.

Antoni Slonimski, a Polish writer from the first half of the 20th century, illustrated Polish unkindness with a rich anecdote. While having his hair cut, he was listening to a radio news broadcast anout the funeral of Aristide Briand, a French prime minister about whom the hairdresser had no previous knowledge. The hairdresser had only one comment: "He stole what he could, and then he died."

Legendary Polish reporter and globetrotter Melchior Wankowicz wrote in his 1947 book Pettiness that a Polish person "assumes automatically that the other is an incompetent idiot."

"If I say to a Pole that I am an engineer, he’ll smile crookedly and think that I’m nothing more than a construction worker," the writer continued.

Anna Giza, a professor of sociology interested in the Polish social condition, says that when it's possible to think the worst, Polish people tend to do so. An atheist amounts to a communist, a believer is a prude. A cheerful person is making fool of himself, whereas someone sad is only posing. As a consequence, we approach people with distrust and rudeness, setting in motion a vicious cycle.

If one Kowalski approaches the world in this way, he only spoils the moods of the limited number of people in his life. If 38 million people do so, life becomes a nightmare.

In July, Gazeta reported that a bus driver circulating between two distant Polish cities intentionally left a gas station without one of his passengers. The driver pulled away knowing that the woman's 10-year-old son and her suitcases were on-board. The article drew an unusual number of comments — most of them unfavorable to the woman: "She got what she deserved!" To a commenter who suggested the passenger deserved some empathy, another reader responded, "Are you joking? Maybe a Brit or a Swedish person can afford empathy."

What I wonder is, what lesson about his country did the 10-year-old learn?

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!