culture shock in panama
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18 Cultural Quirks of Panama

Last Updated on November 10, 2020 by Retire in Panama

panama culture My time in Panama has been full of friendship, learning, and daily cultural exchanges. This country is not only full of beautiful biodiversity, but also boundless variations in social norms. I learned a lot of these in my time in the Peace Corps when I spent most of my time living, eating, working, and socializing with Panamanians in quite a few of the different provinces here.

Over my time here, I have been taking note of the many cultural quirks unique to Panama to prepare you for your next visit to this little Isthmus. Now, on this list will be some generalizations, and not all will apply to every area of Panama, especially not Panama City, but remember that I spent a lot of time in small communities in the countryside, where the true traveler knows you can discover the roots and heart of any culture. So without further ado, the 18 cultural quirks you may not have heard before about Panama:

  1. Car horns are not just for airing your traffic-induced frustration. In Panama, drivers are accustomed to greet friends, neighbors, or just a smiling face they see with panama horn honkinga friendly beep of the horn. Annoying, yet adorable. (Taxi drivers will also honk as a way of asking if you need a ride). 
  2. In contrast to #1, silence in a social setting can be totally normal here. You could be at a birthday party with 20 people sitting in silence and everyone is perfectly comfortable. Just turn up the “tipico” music, eat your “arroz con pollo” (basically like chicken fried rice), and enjoy the company. 
  3. No meal is complete without rice. Except, maybe, breakfast. But seriously, if you truly want to adapt to Panamanian culture, then learning to love rice would be a great first step. In fact, I would put it right up there on the to-do list after learning to speak Spanish.
  4. There is no need to rush in Panama, but be warned if you plan a meeting at 2pm it might not start until 3pm. This is not typically the case in larger metropolitan areas, but in the countryside, you may want to slow your pace and learn to smell the flowers. 
  5. If someone calls out your name or vice versa, it’s customary to respond with a simple howl or hoot. “Aouuuuu” aka “I’m over here!”
  6. It is extremely common to use bus transportation. At first glance it appears to be a bewildering stress-inducing system of transport, but it’s actually quite well organized and easy to navigate. If you are unsure which bus to take, just ask!
  7. Knocking is not customary in the “campo” or “countryside.”  If the door is closed, the family likely is not home. If the door is open, that is your cue to yell “Buenas” and wait for a response to enter.
  8. You are what you look like. This has been a bit of a culture shock for me because in U.S. culture we’re expected to look past a person’s physical appearance. Here it is perfectly common to refer to people by how they look. The overweight gentleman is “el gordo,” the Asian madam is “la china,” the person with one eye is “el tuerto,” and of course I’m called a slew of identifying nicknames: gringa, blancita, fulita, peliroja, extranjera… Now, this does not mean it is okay to take on this custom as a foreigner. It is always best to approach with your most polite Spanish, especially as you are learning. And this certainly is not true for all people, but it is common enough that it’s worth mentioning as a heads-up. 
  9. Panama is predominantly Catholic/Christian. The locals don’t typically care what organized religion you belong to, although they are more understanding if you believe in some form of God or higher power. God is regularly referenced in everyday conversations. Example:Me (greeting neighbor): “Hi how are you today?”Almost every response: Good thanks to God.

    Me: “Would you like to have lunch together tomorrow?”

    Neighbor: Yes if God allows it.

    Me (saying goodbye to my neighbor): Have a great day!

    Neighbor: God willing.

  10. If you order tortillas in Panama, you will get a couple 1 cm thick fried yellow corn discs… very different from the mexican tortillas you may have been expecting. Panamanian Cornmeal Tortilla This is not Mexico and Panamanian traditional food is very different from mexican food. The two countries are, in fact, on completely opposite sides of Central America. 
  11. Pointing is done with the lips rather than the fingers. Just make a kissy face in the general direction you’re trying to gesture towards. 
  12. To demonstrate to someone how long something was, say the snake you found in your chicken coup, you would mark the length on your outstretched arm. I once made the mistake of trying to explain the length of something just using my hands and the air in between, as one might do in North America. I was quickly taught how confusing and ineffective that method was. 
  13. When asking directions, don’t expect to get specifics. It is quite likely that the answer will be “over there” with the before-mentioned point of the lips, regardless of how far away the destination may be. Pro tip: use waze or google maps at all times when trying to navigate your way around Panama. There is a severe lack of signage on the roads. 
  14. A rough sounding “Mhhmmm” and “A-hoooo” can be signs of annoyance, like when the kids run over your freshly cleaned floors with muddy feet. 
  15. “Brujas”, aka witches are real. (ex. Tule Vieja…ask a panamanian about this if you want to hear some interesting folk stories) 
  16. Some people are born with the curse of the “evil-eye”. This is called “ojea” or “ojear”. If said-person gives something a lot of attention, say complimenting your beautiful garden, and your plants die later on, it will be blamed on that person. Newborn babies and animals are highly susceptible to “ojea”, and so many people adorn them with red fabric or jewelry to guard them from the evil eye.
  17. Life revolves around food here. Food and plants are often gifted to family, neighbors,  visitors, and newcomers as a sign of welcome and good will. 
  18. “Apasmo” or “El Aire” is a phenomenon in which a person moves quickly from a hot environment to a cold one or vice versa and gets very sick or has a stroke.  This is a commonly held belief. You will likely be advised to avoid Apasmo-inflicting actions, such as:

culture differences in PanamaDon’t go outside after ironing.

Never walk around barefoot.

Don’t open the fridge/freezer if you are sweating.

Likewise, do not take a cold shower if you are sweating.

Regardless of some peculiar beliefs and colorful mannerisms, above all else, Panamanians have taught me grand patience and generosity… along with some great cooking skills. I promise that embracing the Panamanian culture will have you feeling at home in no time here. So come check it out and teach us about any new cultural quirks you may learn along the way.  

 

Megan Thompson

Retire in Panama Tours
It’s more than a tour . . it’s an experience.

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14 Comments

  1. I love this thank you! Relocating there asap and these kinds of articles are so helpful when thinking about being somewhere so different from where i am used to! I can not wait!

    1. Hi Nicole! I’m so glad you found the article to be helpful. It is so important to keep in mind these sorts of differences while making your transition. The good thing is that the people here are typically so patient and kind, which makes learning about their culture really fun. Good luck with your move and feel free to reach out anytime to mw with questions or just to connect. Megan.

  2. Great article Megan. While we have learned a few of these, there are many more we have yet to experience. Panama is fascinating!

  3. Thanks Megan for your well-lived insights! We visited once on our own in Jan-Feb and look forward to returning for an extended stay. We appreciate retire in panama tours articles and videos.

  4. That was fun. I will be rereading this many times Using Buenas at the door reminded me of west Africa. Cloth covering the doorway so knocking is out of the question. You would stand there and clap your hands.

    1. How interesting the things you learn when you get outside of your comfort zone and into the more local areas when traveling!

  5. Hello,
    Just reading all about culture shock reminded me of Thailand during PC service. Many things you write about are true also in Asia or ME. Travelling still the best education there is.

    1. Hi Ilse, isn’t it amazing how peace corps volunteers can relate even when they served on the other side of the world? Michael shares a similar sentiment in the comment above. Travel is truly the best education :)

  6. Megan,

    Great article! An interesting observation I made when I first visited Panama, was that when I visited a store with my husband, he would be the only one that was addressed. This initially struck me as quite odd coming from California, where we both would have been acknowledged in the conversation. I later realized it was mostly a respect issues seeing the man as the head of the household but being a professional woman for many years, it really felt odd at first.

    The other thing I thought was culturally interesting was at the immigration office in David. My husband and I were waiting to be called and one of the workers there went out and came back with a triple scooped ice cream cone. She proceeded to eat the ice cream cone with much relish in front of everyone. In California, we are not allowed to eat in front of customers, we are required to eat in a break room or off premises during our break. Actually per law we have to be out of our work station to prove we actually took a break. I noticed that none of the local Panamanians gave any notice to this at all, On a side note, she was quite plump and back in the US, she likely would get body shamed but not here in Panama, which is nice.

    1. This made me laugh, so true Jean! Work happens at whatever pace pleases people here. I have come to appreciate that part of the culture that prioritizes lifestyle and relationship over income.

  7. Thank you, for this bit of information. I am a Veteran and originate from Trinidad and we have the same Cultural Customs there as well.
    After living in USA for 43 years, I look forward to getting back to the slower pace.
    I will be making my 2nd visit and look forward to meeting Expat Community.

  8. Hi Megan, good piece, Megan is Santiago a cool, fun place to retire? I went by there with the Bus several times, but never got the time to check it out? are you and Oscar the honeymooning couple as of this time? Enjoy, stay well, and safe.

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