1. Assume you know what the Panama Papers are.
A few months ago the world was rocked with the release of the Panama Papers, a long list of CEO’s and heads of state who were caught evading taxes and laundering money, to put it simply. These companies and individuals were clients of a Panamanian law firm. When the data was dumped it was considered the largest leak of its kind in history.
Here’s the thing though. It’s only one law firm. Not an entire country. Calling this the #PanamaPapers is highly inaccurate. What percentage of Panama’s citizens have anything to do with this scandal? Even if other law firms in Panama are also helping the ultra rich from all over the world hide their money, what about with the other 4 million Panamanians? The majority of Panamanians are honest, hard working people who have nothing to do whatsoever with the wrongdoings of the world’s elite (and after all, those hiding the money are citizens of other countries).
2. Get your Panama Canal facts wrong.
If we had a dollar for every U.S. citizen who claims some strange birthright to the Panama Canal we’d be millionaires by now.
In short, the canal was initially begun by the French in 1881, but they just weren’t prepared for the hardships that ensued. Not long after Panama declared independence from Colombia in 1903, the United States took over for the French and began construction in earnest.
Of course, after the US managed and made the entire project possible and they weren’t going to leave just as the money came rolling in, and the canal remained under US rule. After WWII the Panamanians began pushing back against the United States and in 1977 Omar Torrijos, Panama’s dictator, and then US President Jimmy Carter, began the process of returning ownership of the canal to Panama. However, the transition didn’t finish until 1999. So yeah, Panama owns the canal and it’s one of the country’s largest sources of income.
Sorry, USA. But you can take a boat ride through it or visit the Panama Canal on your own and have a look at the Miraflores Locks anytime you’d like.
3. Refuse to engage in small talk.
We Panamanians value courtesy above all else. You’re expected to say “hello”, “good afternoon”, and “good evening” to people whether you recognize them or not, especially before you make a request. You’ll be considered rude if you simply launch into “how much does this cost?” without properly greeting someone and asking “¿cómo estás?” first. When you begin a conversation without the proper greetings, the person will be less likely to go out of their way to be helpful to you. Luckily, the word “Buenas” can be used in general to cover greetings regardless of the time of day.
Overall, we’re quite friendly, patient, and happy to talk to tourists and new people. You will be asked “where are you from” at least twice a day. The person will then engage in a conversation with you about any potential shared interest simply to show that they are being attentive. Even if you are from the most obscure place on the map, Panamanians will dig up any reference to show you that they acknowledge having you here. The reason for this is to simply make you feel welcome in a new place. Deal with it.
4. Get offended if you get a nickname or are referred to by your ethnicity.
Like many Latin American countries, we Panamanians are fond of using physical descriptors in place of names. This may be perceived as politically incorrect in other countries, but it’s perfectly acceptable in Panama and never meant to offend. Anyone older than you — even if it’s only by a year — will likely refer to you as “joven” at any point in time if they don’t know your name. Also, it is not rude in Panama to refer to someone as “chica/o“, or by their skin or hair color as a sign of affection “Morena“, “Fula“. You will also often hear people referred to simply by their ethnicity “gringo” or “chino” to such an extent that all the Asian-owned bodegas are now casually referred to as “chinos”. This is often initially surprising to foreigners used to pretending that differences don’t exist but, in due time, you’ll find yourself on the way to the “chinos” on the corner as well.
5. Diss the Food.
For some reason many people think that every country south of the United States serves Mexican food or a variation of it. While you can find tacos in Panama, they’re not a traditional Panamanian dish and assuming so can get you some serious side eye. Panama has a very diverse culture and this is reflected in its food, whether you’re dining on Afro-Caribbean seafood dishes in Bocas, or the more humble but oh-so-good chicken and rice in Boquete.
6. Don’t Even Attempt to Speak Spanish.
English is rapidly becoming the most prominent language in the world, but to automatically assume that everyone shares your mother tongue is a great way to piss off a Panamanian. Take the time to learn some of the most useful words and phrases, such as the ones you’d use in casual conversation and to get your needs met. If you can order food, ask for directions, ask for help, or just say “hello” politely, a Panamanian will be much more likely to smile and lend a hand. After all, we are a very welcoming people, if we can understand what you’re trying to say.
This article was originally published on Habla Ya Panama Spanish Schools and is reposted here with permission.