“Soy de los Estados Unidos.”
That is what I tell Panamanians. I’m from the United States.
The U.S. is culturally different from Panama. Spending a lot of time in Panama, I’m trying to be sensitive to Panamanian culture and basically avoid insulting people.
Cultural differences between the U.S. and Panama
#1 Manners Matter
This morning I took a bus from our house to the small town we live near. Every Panamanian who got on the bus said, “buenos dias,” as they got on, and everyone on the bus said Buenos Dias back.
Panamanians, in general, are very polite. They call out greetings, make eye contact, wave, and smile. It’s considered impolite not to greet people on an elevator when you get on, or to forget to say goodbye when you get off the elevator. When you pass someone on the sidewalk, you should say, “hola,” “buenos dias,” or at least smile.
(Don’t think that every Panamanian is like this. I’ve been walking on the streets of a small town in Panama, and sometimes a Panamanian does not make eye contact with me or say, “hola.” But compared to Panama, people in the U.S. avoid eye contact much more.)
#2 What’s Personal Space?
In the States, there’s this thing where people don’t, “come into my bubble.” It’s really quite novel. You may have heard of it. It’s called “personal space.” Jokes aside, Panamanians come far closer than expected.
Yesterday I was talking to Panamanian in a restaurant who kept coming closer and closer into my bubble. I kept backing away, until I hit a table. I eventually ended up sitting on the table to get them out of my bubble.
In the States, I was from a “Don’t touch me, don’t come near me,” family. I’m getting used to the no-personal-space aspect of Panama, but it drives my sister crazy.
#3 Just Chilling
One thing I love about Panamanians is that they know how to relax. I’ve only been here about eight days but made friends fast because they’ll talk to me. They sit in lounge chairs in the sunlight, wave down a passerby to chat, or have long conversations in restaurants.
The other day I was talking with a Panamanian who has visited the U.S.
“Did you like it?” I asked him. “Oh yes, ” he said. “Everything was regular, on time, on schedule. Many rules. Everything work right.” I almost dropped my cup. I guess I thought Panamanians would disapprove U.S. mindset of efficiency and time management.
This is not to say that Panamanians are lazy. I’m just saying they have a better work/rest balance than is prevalent in the U.S.
#4 Time Measurement
Expats who live in Panama have a saying: “This is Panama.” It describes the, well, haphazardness of Panama. For example, time. In Panama when you need something done, it generally takes awhile.
Two days ago I was waiting for a friend to pick me up. He had an errand to run. “I’ll be back in an hour.” He said, “Maybe a little more.”
I’m very time oriented. After an hour had passed, I started checking my watch every two minutes. What the heck, I thought, where is he??? He arrived an hour after I expected him.
“I was a little worried,” I said. “Hey, this is Panama,” he responded.
So those are four cultural differences.
There is one more huge difference about Panama , that is a whole issue in and of itself. It deserves a whole blog post to itself. Click here to read Panamanian Men.
That’s it for today
I’ll doubtless discover more differences as we navigate this six month stay in Panama. Stay tuned:)