Excerpted from the Panama Career Guide
Panama, officially the República de Panamá, with a population of approximately 3.8 million people, has long been a meeting point of cultures from around the world. About 70 percent of the population identifies as mestizo (mixed race). The Panama Canal provides a link between the coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and significantly influences world trade. In addition, the country is just a short plane trip away from any country in Central or South America, particularly Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, as well as the Caribbean. The main international airport (one of the biggest in the region) also connects Panama with the US, Canada, France, Spain and England, among others. Panamanians refer to themselves as istmeños, meaning ‘inhabitants of the isthmus.’ Because of its history, Panama exhibits a strong Afro-Caribbean culture, despite being located in Central America.
Because of its diversity of ethnicities and cultures, it is always a good idea to follow the host’s lead when it comes to acceptable behavior. What is acceptable to one culture in Panama might not be to another. Generally speaking, Panamanian culture is formal, and it is important to show respect and consideration to others.
It is said that in Panama there are two times for everything: the ‘normal,’ punctual time (la hora gringa, North American time) and the ‘Panamanian’ time (la hora panameña). In reality, there is no agreement on the subject of punctuality. Furthermore, what is appropriate will vary from situation to situation.
- Arriving between five and ten minutes late to work is tolerated (or not), depending on the work. For teachers, schedules are very tight.
- There is often a delay of about 30 minutes at events such as conferences, roundtables and public speeches.
- Family parties will generally start one hour later than the time indicated on the invitation.
Due to the widespread presence of North Americans in Panama, English is spoken fluently by about 15 percent of the urban population, mainly among middle- and upper-managers or other elite. While most businesses use Spanish as their general business language, English is used in some businesses, particularly those with an international focus. However, outside of the capital city of Panama, it is rare to find English speakers. Anglicisms and slang have also made their way into informal Spanish in Panama.
Men’s business clothing can vary across government offices, the financial sector and the industrial sector. Both the government and the financial sector require formal clothing: classic suits, traditional shoes (with laces, though buckle shoes are increasingly accepted) and dark colors. More casual clothing is worn in the industrial sector, i.e., long-sleeved shirts and formal trousers, except for special events. Men often use guayaberas, which is a white shirt with particular designs worn untucked outside the trousers, as formal attire.
Women in the government and financial sectors usually wear a formal dress or skirt/blouse or trouser/blouse sets. More clothing variety can be found in other sectors, again with casual clothing prevailing. In a large number of companies both male and female workers wear business casual clothes, especially on Fridays.
Panamanian businesspeople tend to prefer conservative, low-risk approaches. The business world is highly regulated and there are many rules. Lots of red tape can also slow down business processes. Since Panamanian business culture is averse to risk, implementing change often comes slowly. However, respect is given to those who are ready to try something new and, perhaps due to its history and location, Panamanians are open to hearing new ideas.
In negotiation, personal relationships are very important. Panamanians prefer to deal with those they trust; therefore much time is spent in developing relationships. Business is hierarchical and the person with the most authority makes decisions after considering how the decision will affect the group. In Panama, subjective feelings may impact business decisions.
Women in the Workplace
In Panama, it is acceptable for women to embark on careers although starting a family is still given priority. While there is no strong feminist movement, women have succeeded in reaching the top levels of organizations, particularly those in the public sector and education. In fact, from 1999 to 2004, Panama had its first female president, Mireya Elisa Moscoso Rodríguez de Arias. Officially, women are guaranteed equality with men. And according to a recent study, more women than men graduated from Panamanian universities.
This is just a sample of what you'll find in the complete Panama guide.