A: Did you drink any alcohol on the day you were arrested?
B: No, not at all. Only beer.
A: Do you have a drinking problem?
B: No I don’t, but you know … I’m Polish.
This real life conversation, accompanied by bewilderment and gentle laughter, occurred some time ago during one of my court assignments. So, really, is there anything peculiar about the Polish drinking culture?
Perhaps, it is the case that in people’s minds we, the Poles, are just simply equated with the Russians – also known for strong head for alcohol? Given our ‘shared’ past, it is not surprising (but still a bit disconcerting) to see that these subtle national differences between Russia and East-Central European countries (and then between East-Central European nations themselves) are not teased out. Statistically speaking, according to the data gathered by the World Health Organization, on average the consumption of alcohol per capita (in litres of pure alcohol) is 12.5 for Poland and 15.1 for Russia. And it is beer (55%), not spirits, which have a significant share in overall alcohol consumption in Poland. Thus in my view, is neither Polish nor Russian, but the perception of – the Soviet and satellite nations – that encompasses the broadly framed East European drinking culture and it is probably tilting at windmills to fight this image.
Fair enough if the reputation for the heavy-drinking Pole is doing well but at the end of the day such hard drinking label relates to a Catholic society. It is not rocket science to say that the culture of Polish drinking is somehow at odds with our Catholic upbringing and the teachings of temperance. And here, I recall one of my interviewees, a well-educated urban-living male who said that during his religious education at school, and that was under Komuna, he was taught that crime committed under the influence of alcohol could be justified. Although this particular article of faith has changed over time, it is vain effort to get an insider-perspective from such a non-researchable institution, as the Catholic Church is.
Nonetheless, it comes as a surprise to discover that during the Interwar period Poland belonged to the countries of the lowest alcohol consumption in Europe (see Zieliński 1994). From four litres per person before the First World War there was a decrease of two litres during the between wars period. Then, by the end of the 1970s, the alcohol consumption rose to eight litres per person. From the mid-1980s alcohol regulations were again liberalized, meanwhile and in consequence at the beginning of the 1990s, the alcohol consumption grew rapidly to 10 litres per person.
Apart from the statistics and a breath of history what is the actual Polish culture of drinking? Zieliński (1994) argues that the prevailing pattern of drinking in Poland is convivial, to some extent symbolic but mainly of the holiday-to-ceremony nature. Poles drink much on an occasion, and the significant majority of alcohol consumers (60%) drink on such ceremonies like weddings – defined by the author as heavy ‘wet’ drinking. Such sociable drinking pattern relates to tradition – and is the most frequently reiterated pattern of drinking that comes up in the narratives of foreigners visiting Poland. Furthermore, the ‘dry’ kind of drinking is acceptable at funeral repasts for instance. Although some would say that these old habits appear to be dying out, I observe quite an interesting mix of old and new: daredevil spirits drinking, dining & wining, an after work beer as well as a quick drink for a bracer – a mix that is interestingly internalized by people of different generations.
The reputation for hard drinking is no longer laughing matter when it translates into drink driving – definitely the kind of drinking that lacks thinking. This is when the so-called Polish pattern of drinking and culture intersects with life threatening behaviour and becomes a significant social problem. The criminalization of drink driving was one of the first post-1989 penal changes, as until 14th April 2000 drink driving was only treated as a misdemeanour. What is little acknowledged in the literature and rightly observed by Szymanowski (2012) is that one of the factors that contributed to the post-1989 drink driving problem was also a sudden increase in cars – from 4.5mln in 1988 to 16mln in 2010. Furthermore, one of the policies to fight drinking & driving in Poland was also to criminalize in November 2013 drink cycling. Although drink driving has been gaining most of the media and policy attention, it should not be forgotten though that many other offences, such as domestic violence, are also frequently committed while in a state of intoxication.
‘In this country drink driving is illegal’ – yep this is definitely one of my favourite comments made by British solicitors and barristers to their Polish clients. While translating as it is, the following goes through my head: ‘Believe it or not it’s illegal in Poland too!’ One can discuss drinking habits, policy traditions but let’s talk about Polish people’s attitudes towards alcohol consumption, as it may be that the bottom line should be located elsewhere. Do Polish people recognize drink driving as a crime? Do they condemn and shun drinking & driving? It is worth to remember that there are various ways to regulate bad drinking habits and one of them is informal control. Such control, excised in the form of social interactions, may come from family members, friends, work colleagues etc. Here, in the Polish case, we frequently hear about przyzwolenie społeczne – which is a social acceptance of alcohol consumption in the wrong context (or rather turning a blind eye to the problem). I agree with Zieliński (1994) who rightly points out that lay people should also be asked about their attitudes towards alcohol consumption in general and whether they have ever tried to convince a friend or relative to cut down on drinking.
In addition to all the foregoing, since I entered the profession of court interpreters I have started to discover certain socio-linguistic dimension to the Polish culture of drinking. I strongly believe that it is equally interesting to scrutinize how people talk about alcohol consumption. Although the Polish language is known for the use of diminutives, when it comes to the alcohol ones such as piwko, piweczko (beer) wódeczka (vodka) – they interestingly mirror how the Polish language is used to convey certain affection or endearment towards alcohol. Sadly, this also echoes the argument on how to downgrade the role of alcohol content and consequences of excess drinking.
As all important laws and policies have been put in place in Poland, it is rather the question of how we, Polish people in general, talk about our culture of drinking and whether we know how to influence those who do not know how much alcohol is too much?
Szymanowski, T. (2012) Przestępczość i polityka karna w Polsce. W świetle faktów, i opinii społeczeństwa w okresie transformacji. Wolters Kluwer.
Zieliński, A. (1994) Polish culture: dry or wet? Contemporary Drug Problems, 21, 329-340.
 A common term referring to the communist/socialist regime in Poland. As there is no agreement as to whether the regime was more communist or socialist, for the blog purpose I decided to use lay people’s language.