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We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years. So search our blog to plan your vacation. From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss. You'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while on vacation!


Top 10 Things to Know About Panamanian Culture

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For even more about the Panamanian culture, check out this post by my friend Evelyne...

Truly learning a foreign language is more than just head knowledge. Sure, there are grammar rules to follow and vocabulary to learn, but this is only the start to building your understanding of a foreign language.

Language and culture cannot be separated. Language is vital to understanding our unique cultural perspectives. Language is a tool that is used to explore and experience our cultures and the perspectives that are embedded in our cultures. Buffy Sainte-Marie, American Singer.

Adapting to a new culture is not easy, especially if you have lived in only one country your entire life. But if you are serious about learning a foreign language, opening up to the foreign culture is a necessity to be able to genuinely learn and understand the twists of the language.

I ascribe a basic importance to the phenomenon of language. To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization. Frantz Fanon, French Physcologist.

Panamanian culture is so rich, deep, and FUN, it’s a joy to experience while learning the Spanish language! Here are the top 10 things to know about Panamanian culture for anyone who plans to learn Spanish in Panama:

Group of Habla Ya students enjoying a typical Panamanian meal at a local restaurant in Panama City. It's all about being immersed in the language within its culture!
Group of Habla Ya students enjoying a typical Panamanian meal at a local restaurant in Panama City. It's all about being immersed in the language within its culture!

1. Diversity

Panama is a huge melting pot of races, but in a very tiny space! Going way back in history, Panama was home to multiple indigenous groups, many of which still live here today. Many scholars believe that the major civilizations of Mesoamerica (Mayans, Aztecs and others) and South America (Incas), used the Isthmus of Panama as trading grounds or at least as a point of transit. The Spanish came and settled down in the first part of the 1500’s, growing the population and added a new race and culture to the mix. They also brought slaves from Africa. Panama in fact was always a place of transit as all the goods from the Western part of Central and South America would cross the isthmus before making their way to Europe.

America's first transcontinental railroad in the mid 1800's, the French's failure to build the Panama Canal in the later part of the 1800’s, and then the USA's success to build the Panama Canal by 1914 meant tens of thousands of labor was brought from literally all over the world. Once the canal was built in the beginning of the 1900’s, immigration boomed as people from all over the world made Panama their new home.

You will see it all in Panama! As in all languages, you will hear words used to differentiate between the races. People aren’t quite as “politically correct” as in the United States and many “Western” countries, but my advice to you is to tread lightly and be sure to fully understand the use of the different words for denominating race before using them! Some words are vulgar and some are common. This is a typical part of Panamanian vocabulary and culture, however, so it’s important to learn and take note.

Panama is a melting pot of races from all over the world. Referring to someone by the color of their skin (or amount of weight they're carrying or not) is not a crime over here.
Panama is a melting pot of races from all over the world. Referring to someone by the color of their skin (or amount of weight they're carrying or not) is not a crime over here.

2. Family Values and Mores

A big change from the United States (where lending a helping hand is considered second-nature... except for many people in busy cities...), Panamanians are focused on their immediate family first and foremost. It’s a culture of limited trust, maybe stemming from the diverse race relations and typical cultural misunderstandings dating back hundreds of years.

The good part of this is that everyone minds their own business and are quick to not stick their nose in things that don’t concern them. It’s not to say that there is no gossip, let’s be real, but it’s more of a sharing of information rather than a time to pass judgement and personal opinion.

The extended family is also important and children are usually raised by many family members, in turn growing respect for their elders. The younger generations are expected to care for the older generations as they age, as well. This is why you will often see extended families living together or very close to one another.

Male and female roles are mainly traditional, stemming from Spanish and Catholic influences. Although it is very common for the younger generations of women to go to college and work full-time (at least before having children). The “machismo” culture is prominent, but is definitely changing as Panama becomes more connected to the world and continues to be influenced heavily by “Western” cultures.

In Panama family is very important and stays close.
In Panama family is very important and stays close.

3. Dress and Hygiene

Panamanians are very concerned about their appearance and place a big emphasis on physical hygiene, especially when out in public. In the house, however, it’s common for men to go shirtless. The dress leans towards conservative, though the younger generations are certainly influenced by USA pop culture and push the limits on their fashion choices. You will see barber shops and salons everywhere, as well as perfume stores and accessory shops for women’s fashion.

Even though it's the tropics and it gets very hot and humid, in Panama City you will see many men in suits everyday and very elegant women. In Boquete, the dress code is a little bit more relaxed yet still formal. Bocas del Toro would be the only place where flip flops are the norm.

4. Social Situations

Above all, Panamanians are indirect communicators and value respect. It's difficult for a Panamanian to say no directly. A maybe or "quizás" is preferred so don't be shocked for this lack of certainty. It is more important to “save face” and not embarrass someone, especially in a public situation. Panamanians are polite to one another and tolerate all sorts of differences in race, religion, and socio-economic background (though public display of homosexuality is not widely accepted).

It’s common to greet acquaintances with a handshake, hug, or kiss on the cheek. A comfortable distance should be kept while conversing, as Panamanians are not especially touchy people with members outside of their family.

Using titles when communicating with authorities or persons in positions of power is very important in Panama. It’s also seen as a sign of respect for the elderly and in general, anyone that you are not personally acquainted with. Titles such as “Licenciado/a” (someone with a bachelors degree), “Ingeniero/a” (someone with an engineering degree), “Doctor/a” (medical doctor), “Abogado/a” (lawyer), “Profesor/a” (professor), or “Oficial” (officer) are commonly used for professionals and authorities. For other acquaintances, “Señor/a” (Mr./Mrs.) or “Don/Doña” (Mr./Mrs.) can be used.

5. Perception of Time

Panamanians are very relaxed people. You will rarely encounter a stressed Panamanian, as in their minds, there is always time to get everything done. If not today, tomorrow. Or next week. They don’t put much significance on promptness, preferring instead to arrive in peace rather than in a rush. Punctuality is not overly important. There is more of a push to stick to a schedule in formal situations, but it is no where near the level that most “Western” countries are at. A party that starts at 8 pm could mean people start arriving at 9 pm or even later. If you don't go with the flow, this can drive you crazy.

6. Cuisine

Panamanians love big, hearty meals almost always with white rice (except for breakfast). They are big meat eaters, eating a lot of chicken, beef, and pork prepared in multiple ways but most traditionally stewed with a tomato sauce. Breakfast is typically fried foods such as fried dough (“hojaldra”) or fried corn dough (“tortilla”) with a fried hot dog or stewed meat. They also eat boiled eggs or scrambled eggs with onions and peppers. A sweet oatmeal is common, too.

Most Panamanians are not familiar with alternative diets, especially gluten-free, paleo, and vegan.

Fish dishes, such as ceviche, are common in coastal areas. Because of the large number of Chinese that migrated to Panamá, it is common to find some Chinese dishes (like fried rice) in traditional Panamanian restaurants. There are also many Chinese restaurants (with a Panamanian-twist) in large cities throughout Panama.

For even more about traditional food and meals in Panama click here...

7. Employment and Labor

According to Trading Economics, the unemployment rate in Panama was 4.1% in 2013. As you can see, most people have jobs and the economy is very healthy. I wouldn’t say that Panamanians are especially “hard workers” using the North American definition. They work their 8 hours per day, 5-6 days per week and that’s enough. They certainly value their free time and seem to have a healthy “work/life balance.”

Panamanians work ethic is not the strongest one around

Many Panamanians are entrepreneurs or work in family businesses. There is a wealthy elite in Panama City that owns the majority of the big businesses in Panama, so in the rest of the country, individuals take up the task of opening small shops to meet services and needs of community members.

Women work in a variety of jobs, though it is common to see discrimination against men or women for particular jobs (for example, restaurant servers, supermarket cashiers, construction and other typical male-dominated jobs). Women have also reached the highest levels of all fields, including government positions (Mireya Elisa Moscoso was the first female president serving from 1999-2004).

8. Politics

The majority of Panamanians, especially men, are interested and vocal about local and national politics. Elections for national and local positions are held every 5 years and this is always a time of much political discussion amongst the population. Panamanians do not necessarily vote according to which party they are affiliated with, because there are many parties and platforms change depending on the candidate.

Corruption in the government has been a hot topic since the 2014 election because the former President, Ricardo Martinelli, and many of his cabinet members have been found guilty of corruption charges. Although it’s a shame that there is corruption amongst the elite of Panama, it’s a good sign that there is a respected judicial process to deal with these problems.

Almost all of the top government officials are from Panama’s few elite wealthy families. There is some resentment from the general population but as education isn't very high, inequality remains; this is how it has always been from back in the times of Spain’s colonial rule.

9. Party Time and Socializing

Panamanians love to have a good time, men and women alike. They have caught onto to the “Western” holidays and celebrate any and all occasions that call for a gathering of family and friends. Most notably birthdays, Carnaval, national holidays (independence days), New Years, and Christmas. A nice meal is always served, music is always playing, and drinks will undoubtedly be flowing.

There are also local fairs in towns all over Panama all throughout the year. These events are just like the fairs you are used to back home, with all kinds of vendors, street food, games for children, and musical events that last into the wee hours of the morning.

As a foreigner, you will quickly be invited to parties once you start making friends with Panamanians. Definitely go! Panamanians are very friendly and relatively talkative and they love to share their culture with foreigners. Hopefully you will have a chance to test out your dancing skills, too!

10. Music

A variety of music is enjoyed by Panamanians. The traditional music is called “típico” and its popularity and influence could be compared to classic country music in the United States. Other types of latin music such as salsa, bachata, and cumbia are also popular. The younger generations enjoy Reggaeton, the widespread latin hip hop music, along with bachata and general latin pop music. Reggae roots is another genre that is popular amongst in the Caribbean cities and in Panama City because of the large populations of Afro-Antilleans.


Kafu Banton “Habla Como Pana” (speak like a Panamanian) video

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT LEARNING SPANISH IN PANAMA AT HABLA YA SPANISH SCHOOLS... »

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We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years. So search our blog to plan your vacation. From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss. You'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while on vacation!


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