Panamanians take great pride in their culture and customs and have high expectations in matters of etiquette and manners. Visitors and overseas residents are also expected to respect and adhere to these courtesies.
It is not only a faux pas to go shirtless in any city and town in Panama, but it is also illegal. Panamanians are stylish dressers and even when they go casual, they pay much attention to their personal appearance. Men and women wear suits and dresses even when the weather is hot. This doesn’t mean that you should not dress comfortably. For casual outings, a pair of jeans and a clean collared shirt works well. Longer shorts in linen are considered fashionable for sporty events.Women would be committing a big faux pas if they wore jeans instead of formal wear for a night out. It is not necessary to splurge on designer clothes all the time. A neat, well-groomed appearance and some confidence is all it takes to fit in with the Panamanians.
Meeting and greeting
When greeting someone, don’t make the faux pas of shaking their hand too firmly, as this is seen as a sign of aggression. A light handshake between men is the accepted custom. Women often greet casual and business acquaintances with a hug and air kisses on each side of the cheek. Buenos is what people usually say when greeting, while Buenos dias or Buenos tardes (good morning or good afternoon) is used in formal occasions. Panamanians take titles quite seriously and addressing people by their titles is considered a sign of great respect. Don is the title used for men, while Dona is used for women, followed by the surname. This also applies to professionals like doctors, lawyers, engineers or professors. When saying goodbye, adios is the preferred term, but ciao is also used commonly today.
Those who hesitate to maintain eye contact during a conversation out of shyness may unfortunately be committing a major faux pas. Eye contact is perceived as a sign of integrity. Unlike the people in other central and Latin American countries, Panamanians prefer personal space and avoid touching during conversations.
Don’t be surprised to see a curious pointing-with-the-lips behavior among Panamanians. This gesture, similar to a kiss, is used instead of pointing with the fingers at something.
The relaxed concept of time in Panama means that you most likely won’t commit any faux pas in terms of punctuality. Although punctuality is respected when it comes to business meetings or appointments, people tend to be more relaxed and don’t adhere to strict timings when socializing. Lunches are usually extended to one or two hours, even if they are business lunches. Business or social dinner engagements may continue well after midnight. Panamanians value people and relationships much more than schedules when socializing and this relaxed approach to time makes it easier for expats to adjust to the Panama lifestyle.
Avoid tipping anything less than 10 percent when dining out. It is common practice to give a 10 to 15 percent tip to the server. It is also possible to get a better table at many restaurants if you tip the host or hostess. Tipping the coat check attendant and valet is also a common custom.
Bargaining is not a common practice when buying shopping. There may be discounts available at local flea markets or street stands, but don’t expect too many discounts when buying most items.
Visiting someone’s home
Being friendly people, Panamanians love to extend invitations to their home for dinner. This is done with casual friends as well as business associates. It is not necessary to show up with a gift, but presenting something like a bottle of wine is considered good manners. Taking a small gift from your home country can really impress your host or hostess and is ideal for social engagements that are important to you. There are no strict rules about how to behave during a dinner engagement and the practices that apply in your home country will most likely work in Panama too. The customary sampling of some of the dishes and a warm thank you along with a friendly handshake or hug before leaving is considered ideal etiquette.