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How to Be Polite to the Local Panamanian People

Last Updated on December 2, 2020 by Retire in Panama

The Panamanian people are quite special. Polite, friendly and generally just good people. But, they have some customs and traditions that they hold dear, and it is good to know them before you get here, so you can interact with them in a favorable way from the beginning.

Here are some ways you can be polite to the people of panama when you arrive instead of just pissing people off.

Always greet people.

Whether there is one, or a group of people, you always greet them properly. Examples are, if you pass someone on the street, its buenos dias, buenas tardes, or buenas noches (morning, afternoon, evening). If you walk into an office, like a doctors office, or a government office, always great the room. You do not need to look at anyone directly, or yell it out, just a soft buenos dias to the room.

If you are walking up to someone for help, like a staff member, you always greet before starting to ask your question. It is considered rude not to. If you observe the interactions of the Panamanian people with each other, you will see this polite interaction. You can greet them with buenos dias, or como estas (how are you), either is fine. Please, learn some greetings and proper ways to ask for things, before you get here, it really will go a long ways. It is also acceptable in Panama, to shorten the good day greetings to buenas. Once you get to know some Panamanians, and they before friends, you will learn the more informal ways they great each other, and yes, they always start a conversation, in person, or even by text or email with a greeting.

Don’t get your Panama canal facts wrong.

The Panama people hold the Panama Canal very dear to their heart, they are very proud of it, and it is related to 40% of the Panama’s economy, and yes, it is their canal. This part goes more for the USA people, never get into the mindset with a Panamanian that the canal would not be here if it were not for the USA. For those of you that do not know, the USA control of the canal was 100% handed over to the Panamanian authorities in 1999, and is run and owned solely by Panama. The USA has no involvement in the canal anymore.

Do not assume that tacos are a Panama dish.

I am not sure why, but North Americans seem to think that everyone south of Mexico eats tacos. They DON’T!. Besides the odd Taco Bell in Panama, you will not find tacos on a Panamanian restaurant menu. Some of the favorite Panama dishes you will see are arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), empanadas (made either from flour or corn, and stuffed with meats and/or vegetables), sancocho (a soup consistinf of large pieces of meat, tubers and vegetables served in a broth), chicken asado, beef and pork. They do serve rice with almost every meal.

Don’t offend the coffee, EVER!!!

If you do not like the coffee, just shut up about it, no sense getting into an argument about it. Panamanian are very proud of their coffee. In fact in Boquete in the Chiriquí highlands, the Geisha coffee there wins awards every year in world wide coffee fairs. This year in auction Boquete Geisha coffee sold for a record just over $1000 a pound, so try some, and enjoy a $20 cup of coffee. You can actually pick up a good cup of Panama coffee for 60 cents.

Don’t assume you know what that the Panama papers are, if you don’t.

This is a touchy subject for the Panamanians, as the western media dubbed this scandal which makes all Panamanians look bad. The only part of the Panama papers that has anything to do with Panama is one law firm. It has nothing to do with the Panama people in general. It has to do the with some Western and Eastern elite hiding their wealth, and they were not hiding it in Panama, they just used a law form in Panama to set things up to hide the money in Caribbean and European banks. The Panamanian people had nothing to do with the panama papers, but the mainstream media has tied them to it. Just steer away from the subject and you will be fine.

Don’t get offended if you get refereed to by your ethnicity.

This is something that you may find hard to get used to, but there terms I will talk about are not being used as derogatory in any way. You may get asked if you are a gringo. Well in Mexico, that could be a bad thing, but here it is perfectly normal way to refer to someone from the USA. The Chinese people here are refereed to as Chinos. And the kid packing your groceries is called “chico” (boy) . Yes is is perfectly fine to say, vamos chico, (come on boy) when you want him to follow you to your car with your groceries. I know it sounds strange, but perfectly acceptable.

Don’t move here without out knowing some Spanish words.

This is a big one, so I will spend some time on it. Just spending an hour a day studying Spanish for a month before you get here will make all the difference in the world. Panamanians are very friendly people to foreigners, they know you will probably not speak Spanish, but if you try, show some effort with a greeting, and politely ask for something, they will smile and do everything they can to help you out. Here are some basic words and phrases to start with that you should know when you arrive here.

Por favor y gracias (please and thank you) You should use these words many times a day. Spanish is a very polite language. I still see it all the time, English people saying “thank you” in English to a Panamanian. Why? Grasias is not had to pronounce. Don’t be rude, your politeness will go a long way here.

Buenos dias (good morning)
Buenas tardes (good afternoon)
Buenos noches (good night) This in Panama is used as a greeting, not as a goodbye

Hasta luego – (See you Later) used as a goodbye. Luego can be replaced with mañana (tomorrow) proxima semana (next week) or pronto (soon) Some tips: In general do not use adios as goodbye, it is more of a final goodbye. Chao (chow) is often used informally as a goodbye. Do not use hasta la vista, even as a joke, it is not funny.

Cómo estás (How are you) Use como está (formal, someone you do not know, or someone of authority or deserving respect), como estás (informal, a friend), como están (more than one person)

Dónde está (where is) and your noun. Example: Dónde está el bañco (Where is the bank)

Dónde están (where are) and your noun. Example: Dónde están los huevos. (Where are the eggs) But remember, before you as the question, greet the person, and after they show you, thank them.

Necesito (I need) I great tip here, if you are in a store looking for something, that you do not know the word for, or you cannot pronounce the word, find a picture on your phone, walk up to an employee, greet them first, then say “Necesito” pointing to the picture. They will take you to your product, and then thank them.

Quisiera (I would like) a very polite way ask for something in a restaurant. Quisiera un café, por favor. Rather than just saying café!, which sounds like a barking order.

Tenga un buen día (have a good day)

Igualmente (equally) This is used a lot here in Panama, and you often will hear is shortened to igual. It is used in the context (and you also) . For if the grocery cashier tell you to have a good day, reply with “Igual” (watch your pronunciation, it does not quite sound like the English word equal)

Losiento, no hablo español (Sorry I do not speak Spanish) Rather than looking dumb, when someone starts talking to you in Spanish, just reply this back to them.

These, of course are just a few words, but they will start you in the right direction of being polite with your new Panamanian friends and neighbors . To learn a lot more, I recommend Duo Lingo as a great app to download on your phone.

When you move here, you will not be expected to converse in Spanish. In fact, I have lived here 8 years, and I still cannot carry a conversation in Spanish. But I do not know several thousand words in Spanish, and I know my numbers well, and I still am learning, with the goal to converse one day.

It’s more than a tour . . it’s an experience.

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  1. I learned that years ago in one of my first trips to Panama. Humility goes a long way to gaining inclusion in groups of Panamanians. Don’t come off with arrogance, remember, no one is superior to anyone – we are all granted permission to live on this earth by someone much greater than us, and yet He was quite humble during his visit here. Good article. Americans, because of the reputation which preceeds them by those who were arrogant visitors need to be especially patient, humble, and appreciative of the locals who are tolerating or called upon to help us. Thank you for this article. I couldn’t agree more.

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