Conduct and Customs
Despite Panama’s undeserved reputation among those who’ve never been there as a dangerous country, you’ll likely find it a remarkably mellow and low-key place to travel. It’s extremely rare to encounter hostility or belligerence. Courtesy is considered quite important, however. Panamanians may take offense if they feel they’re not being treated with proper dignity and respect.
Foreigners sometimes complain that the Panamanians they encounter in stores and offices seem unfriendly or sullen. This complaint is most often made about Panama City; in the countryside, visitors are frequently overwhelmed by the warmth and friendliness they encounter.
If you feel you’re being treated rudely, do not raise your voice or snap at the offending party—this will get you absolutely nowhere. Be patient and polite, and take your business elsewhere next time. Similarly, the less you expect punctuality and speediness the happier you will be.
As in other Latin American countries, machismo is a fact of life in Panama. Women may find they have to deal with unwanted male attention. See the Women Traveling Alone page for details.
Dress and Appearance
It’s tempting to wear skimpy, sloppy clothes in the Panamanian heat. Resist the temptation. Panama is not Margaritaville; it is in some ways a rather formal and conservative country. Neat dress, good grooming, and cleanliness are expected.
The influx of foreign tourists and retirees has led to a proliferation of Hawaiian shirts, T-shirts, shorts, baseball caps, tank tops, sneakers, sandals, and the like on city streets and even in fancy restaurants. This is a no-no in Panama. Many businesses will look the other way, out of politeness or a desire for dollars. But it’s considered disrespectful and inappropriate to dress like this anywhere other than the beach. Even the poorest Panamanians dress neatly and cleanly; imagine how rude it must seem that far more affluent foreigners, who don’t have to work in the fields and can afford nice clothes, won’t make the same effort.
If offending local sentiments is not enough of a disincentive, bear in mind that people are judged by their appearance to a greater extent in Panama than in more casual countries. Well-groomed, well-dressed people get better, more courteous service. And just wearing shorts or a Hawaiian shirt on the streets instantly marks you as a clueless foreigner for the unscrupulous to take advantage of, or worse. Few longtime expatriates dress like that, and not coincidentally they are far less likely to be hassled in dodgy parts of town. Overly casual dress also limits where you can go. Those wearing sneakers, sandals, or shorts are not allowed in nightclubs or government offices, and they can be turned away from churches.
It’s actually against the law to drive or walk down a city street without a shirt; violators are subject to fines. What constitutes a “city” street is broadly defined: Shirtless travelers have been ticketed for walking down the main street in Bocas town, a place that hardly qualifies as an urban setting in most people’s minds.
Neat clothing made from cotton, linen, and other lightweight fabrics can be quite comfortable, and it provides better protection from the sun and bugs than beachwear does.
Suits have largely replaced guayabera shirts as business and semiformal wear for middle- and upper-class Panamanian men, made practical by the widespread use of air-conditioning in the cities. Women tend to dress as elegantly as their budget will allow, and two-piece suits or conservative dresses are the norm for professional women.
One funny side effect of the recent influx of gringos and other tourists is that it’s now more common to see Ecuadorian-style “Panama hats” on the streets. They were popular during the Gold Rush and canal-construction days, but they’ve never been made in Panama and haven’t been seen on Panama streets in many decades. When tourists arrived and demanded to buy what they thought of as Panama hats, the market responded, just as it did more than a century ago.
Children wear uniforms to school, and, though spiky modern hairstyles and casual clothes have made some inroads in recent years, it’s rare to see even teenagers take their fashion sense too far. (Chances are excellent that the Spanish-speaking dude you see in shorts and a baseball cap is actually not Panamanian but rather a visitor from another Latin American country.) But long-haired kids are no longer hauled off by the police for a haircut, as they were during the military dictatorship of the 1970s.
Mochileros (backpackers) sometimes get a bad rap in Panama as an unkempt and disreputable lot that add little to the economy. There’s little animosity, but one occasionally senses a mild distrust. To this day, most tourism efforts are pitched at the affluent, and some shudder at the thought of Panama being overrun with foreign backpackers, as they believe Costa Rica has been. This attitude has softened somewhat as real backpackers proved to be less scary than feared. Still, those traveling on a frugal budget will feel more welcome if they do their best to look especially neat and respectable, and if they stash the backpack in a safe place when possible.
Formality extends to etiquette as well. Titles are taken seriously (such as doctor for a physician, licienciado for an attorney or even someone who holds a bachelor’s degree, profesor or maestro for a teacher, ingeniero for an engineer, etc.). If known, they should be used in introductions and correspondence. Courtesies in writing and speech tend to be more elaborate in Panama than in English-speaking countries. Some allowances are made for foreigners, but try to make up for any gaps in eloquence with cordial body language.
Women often greet each other and men with air kisses. Unlike in some other Latin American countries, men rarely greet each other with an abrazo (hug) unless they are on quite friendly terms. Handshakes are the norm, but these tend to be far lighter (some say limper) than in other countries. A crushing handshake is considered aggressive.
It’s not typical in Panama to greet someone with an hola (hello). This is considered quite casual and, especially if the person is unknown to you, not very polite. The main greetings are buenos días (good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon), and buenas noches (good evening). In casual situations this is often shortened to a simple buenas, which conveys a tone somewhere between “hey” and “howdy.” It’s become fashionable in recent years, for some reason, to say “ciao” when parting.
Courtesy may be less elaborate among the poor working classes of the city and the country, but being polite is just as important. Even more so, in some ways. It’s considered extremely insulting to address someone of perceived lesser status as though they’re inferior. When in doubt, use formal terms of address (such as usted instead of tú) with strangers, and be especially sensitive about not lapsing into casual forms with someone who’s performing a service for you.
Many Panamanians are proud of their country and do not take kindly to criticism of Panama and things Panamanian. Complaints they may make to each other are one thing, complaints from a foreigner are quite another. This is especially true when it comes from U.S. citizens, not surprising given the long and complicated relationship between the two countries.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition