Pass the Milk: Is That a Question or an Order?

A new study from the University of Portsmouth in Great Britain provides insight into the differences between the ways in which native English speakers and native Polish speakers use language during day-to-day interactions with family. The researchers hope their findings will lead to a greater understanding between members of the two groups and reduce misunderstandings based on cultural differences.

The researchers’ findings demonstrated how common exchanges between Polish family members lead to an enhanced sense of family and attachment within the Polish community, but sound offensive when translated directly into English.

Jörg Zinken observed family interactions among Polish and British families. He was particularly interested in the dynamics at play behind such everyday occurrences as a family member asking another family member to pass the milk during a meal. Zinken observed that British family members usually asked others to pass the milk, while Polish family members simply said, “Pass the milk.”

The British version is framed as a request even though the asker is already certain that the person being asked for assistance will comply. Zinken believes this is because English-speaking cultures typically value autonomy and wish to provide at least the illusion that the decision to pass the milk belongs to the person who is being asked for assistance. In addition, the responder has the option to assent, which further establishes the idea that individuals decide for themselves whether to help or not.

Polish family members often make no response, or respond with a one-word answer that has no direct translation in English but which translates roughly to “already,” suggesting that the responder is so eager to help that the deed is already as good as done.

When Polish people try to translate the Polish words to ask for the milk directly into English, the words sound offensive and rude to English ears. The new study suggests this is not because the words do not translate properly, but rather because they do. Similarly, the usual English way of asking for the milk would seem insulting to a Polish person if it were translated directly.

Zinken believes this is because both statements are considered respectful and positive in their native speakers’ own cultures but are inappropriate in the other culture. In Poland, the very fact that a family member would not consider refusing such a request is a sign of family love and closeness. The Polish way of asking for the milk expresses the idea that the asker knows and appreciates this fact about the other person. This is considered a positive statement about the relationship between the two family members.

According to Zinken, his research highlights the differences between an individualistic culture like that of most English speakers and a collectivistic culture like that of most Polish speakers. These differing values are expressed in even the simplest everyday verbal interactions. “Every culture has its own social rules and values, but we often don’t notice them because they are ingrained in the way we use language, not just in the words we use but in grammar and sentence structure,” said Zinken. “If we understand these differences better, we can understand where other people are coming from, while also reflecting on what our own language says about us and how we relate to others.”

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