In part because of the long U.S. presence in Panama and in part because of its even longer role in world commerce, Panama has been quicker to “internationalize” than many of its Latin American neighbors. Siestas, for instance, are not really a part of daily life, and in many ways Panama City today has more in common with Miami than it does with, say, Madrid.
But for all Panama’s diversity, the country’s dominant culture does derive directly from Spain. The extended family is by far the most important social unit. Taking care of one’s family comes first, and family-oriented occasions such as baptisms, Mother’s Day, and birthdays are treated as important celebrations.
Most hotels, especially outside Panama City, are still oriented to accommodate fairly large Panamanian families that share the same room for a weekend or holiday retreat, rather than foreign couples or singles exploring the country. Panama is also a quite child-friendly country, all the more so since such a high percentage of the population is younger than 14.
There is a strong feeling of national pride in Panama. Panamanians often express a sense that their country is somehow different from others in the region, in part because of Panama’s unique geographical position and unusually rich history for such a small place. Many, for instance, don’t really consider Panama a part of Central America, whatever a map might say. The sense of Panama as someplace special is best summed up in the popular phrase that is in essence Panama’s national motto: puente del mundo, corazón del universo (bridge of the world, heart of the universe).
Family and Society
Home is sacrosanct, and it’s quite possible to be friends with a Panamanian for years without setting foot in his or her home. Dining with the middle and upper classes of Panama City usually means meeting at a restaurant. To be invited to someone’s house or weekend country home is something special and can mean you’re considered family. Outside Panama City, especially among the campesinos (country people, farmers), entertaining at home is more typical.
Whom one is related to is still extremely important in determining status in Panamanian society. Panama is a small enough country that the names of the prominent families are widely known. Even in non-elite circles, the names of one’s father and mother can help one get ahead or hold one back.
Men and Women
Machismo is a fact of life in Panama. But it’s not as pronounced as in some other Latin American countries, and stereotypical sex roles have begun to break down in modern times. Women are now in more positions of power outside the home; in 1999, Panama even elected its first female president (albeit one best known for being the widow of a popular male politician). Still, boys tend to be given more freedom during their upbringing, in rural areas men work in the fields and women in the home, and the tradition of married men having a mistress and even an entirely separate family has not died out; women are still expected to dress and act in “feminine” ways, and men on the street think nothing of openly ogling any attractive woman who passes by.
Manners and Mores
Foreigners often comment on how laid-back and peaceful Panamanians are—except behind the wheel. One word any visitor is likely to hear often is tranquilo (calm, peaceful, easy-going), used both as an injunction (as in, “take it easy”) and as an expression of praise (as in, “what a peaceful place”). It says a lot about what’s valued in Panama.
But boisterous celebrations are also extremely popular. Panamanians take time off seriously, and the calendar is filled with national holidays, religious observances, and other excuses to party. The entire country comes to a halt for big celebrations, such as Carnaval. Parties often last all night and feature music played at ear-shattering volumes. Those who can afford it have cottages at the beach or in the mountains, or fincas (literally farms, but often just a country home) that they use for weekend getaways or extended holidays.
Another important word to know is dignidad (dignity). Treating others with politeness and respect is extremely important in Panama, and slights are taken seriously.
On the other hand, Panama is also quite a tolerant place, and a laissez-faire attitude prevails. While, just as in any other country, there is racism and discrimination, people of different nationalities, religions, and lifestyles have generally been left in peace. Open homosexuality is still a thing of the future, but gays have begun to assert their rights, and gay bars and clubs aren’t subject to raids and official harassment. While abortion is officially illegal in this Catholic country (punishable by up to three years in jail for the woman and up to six years for the practitioner), it’s surreptitiously available at some clinics. Birth control is practiced by a majority of the sexually active. Prostitution is legal and regulated by the government.
Perceptions of Time
Among the hardest things for visitors to adjust to, especially those from North America and northern Europe, are local attitudes toward time. As in many other Latin American countries, showing up later than an agreed-upon time is normal, even expected. It’s not unusual for guests at a sit-down dinner party to show up an hour or two after the appointed hour.
There’s also ample opportunity for culture clashes concerning appointments. As in other Latin American countries, foreigners trying to do business in Panama often complain of the mañana syndrome: putting off for a vague future time what would seem possible to do right now. Miscommunications are common. What a visitor may interpret as a commitment to call or show up somewhere without fail may actually have been intended only as a polite expression of intent to help out if nothing more urgent comes up.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition