When we decided to move overseas, I read everything I could get my hands on about different cultures. I knew that, whatever country we ended up in, they’d do things differently than we were used to. In some countries a hand gesture that’s perfectly acceptable at home becomes a deadly insult, for example. In others, showing the soles of your feet is taboo.
Since I began living in Panama, I’ve learned that everyday words like “hello” and “goodbye” can improve my quality of life.
In the US we’re taught from an early age to fear and avoid strangers. You don’t make eye contact, you don’t talk to them and you learn to wrap yourself in invisible social armor to protect yourself from them. That’s definitely not the way it’s done here. Instead, I’ve learned three new rules for encounters with people I don’t know.#1. Say Hello
When you enter anywhere – a house, a restaurant, a shop, a bus – you’re expected to greet people. It’s the polite thing to do. Even more shocking (to me) is that they’re expected to respond!
The all-purpose greeting here in Panama is buenas. In formal settings you can use buenos dias (good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon) or buenas noches (good evening), but for most encounters, it’s the all-purpose buenas.
Here on the Azuero Peninsula they really drag it out. Buuuueeeeeeeeeeeeeenas. It’s definitely not a word you mutter quickly under your breath.
Are you getting into a taxi? Give the driver a smile and a friendly buenas.
Boarding a bus or arriving at the bus stop? Say a general buenas to the passengers already seated, and then individually greet each person you actually know.
Passing somebody on the sidewalk? A cheerful buenas never goes amiss.
Entering a restaurant or small shop? A general buenas to the room at large is appropriate, then a greeting for each employee who serves or helps you.
In a large shop you can skip the general buenas to the room, but you still greet the employee nearest the entrance door and those who wait on you.
When in doubt, wherever you are, smile and say buenas.
#2. Say Goodbye
How about when you’re leaving? Just reverse the process. Say goodbye directly to employees who’ve assisted you, then a general goodbye at the door.
The most informal word is ciao (sounds like “chow”). Adios (goodbye), hasta mañana (until tomorrow), hasta la vista (until I see you) are all appropriate. If the setting’s more formal buenos dias, buenas tardes or buenas noches are good choices depending on the time of day.
#3. Do Talk to Strangers
This is all very different from the place I left. There, eye contact was suspect and a greeting from a stranger caused grave concern. Not that long ago a friend of my daughter, a very pleasant young man, struck terror into the heart of an older woman at a bus stop in Orlando, FL. All he did was say hello.
While it’s a big adjustment, I much prefer the Panamanian way. Here, strangers are not wild animals to be feared but pleasant, friendly and helpful individuals I just haven’t met yet.
We’ve really benefited from the kindness of strangers here. On a bus trip from David to Las Tablas, we struck up a conversation with a young man at the bus stop. On arrival, he drove us to our hotel and waited to make sure we were properly checked in.
When our dog got lost two weeks after arriving in Las Tablas, it was a stranger who found him for us.
Strangers led me to friends and neighbors who had houses to rent when I was looking for a place to live.
People who would have remained strangers in the US become friends here. We’ve been adopted by a local family we met because I started chatting with my cab driver.
Strangers have helped us with translating in shops and restaurants when we’ve been struggling.
Now, don’t get me wrong – there are mean, angry, rude and grumpy people here just like anywhere else. And you should always be aware of your surroundings. I’m not advocating saying “hi” to strangers in the slums of Colon at 2 AM. But on the whole, the Panamanian people we run across are helpful, kind and welcoming.
Sometimes I find it hard to break long-standing habits. Saying hello to people I don’t know in public places like restaurants feels awkward and I have to force myself to do it. But the results are worth it.
I’m really enjoying life in the “land of buenas.”
Susanna Perkins always wanted to experience life in another culture – she just never imagined it would become the “sensible” option. Believing that, when life hands you lemons you learn to juggle, she found herself with an entire crate full of citrus following the financial meltdown in the US. She started tossing fruit around and ended up, with her husband and three small dogs, in Las Tablas, Panama. With a more-or-less reliable internet connection she works as a freelance writer and shares her expat insights and experiences on her website, Future Expats Forum, and teaches non-technical people about WordPress at WordPress Building Blocks
Read more of Susanna's Expat Focus articles here