Panama is the bridge between the Americas, home of the famous canal connecting two Oceans, and the wealthiest country in Central America. Due to the United States’ involvement in the construction of the Panama Canal, Panamanians are very familiar with U.S. culture. However, attitudes towards U.S. influence and involvement are mixed. The country is ruled by a small military right wing elite, which is receptive to U.S. interests, perhaps adding to the tension between the two countries.
It is highly important to establish personalismo—personal relationships and to become part of the Panamanian family (the basis of Panamanian society). Panama shares many of the general business practices outlined in earlier articles concerning the region, such as expected punctuality from foreigners and strong work ethic. Status is important here as in many parts of Central America, and even those with a Bachelors degree are acknowledged with the title licensiado.
When making appointments, initial scheduling should be done far in advance, through direct contact (not intermediaries), and confirmation at least a week before your arrival. Though formal business attire is appreciated, weather in Panama usually dictates a more casual (and comfortable) attire. The lack of jackets and ties are acceptable (and expected), though those in high positions don suits or camisillas—an open necked shirt typically worn untucked. Women typically wear skirts and blouses, or dresses. Women should avoid revealing clothing including shorts, and wearing pants in some rural areas of Panama may draw some attention. Greetings resemble greetings of other Central American countries, with the handshake being the primary gesture of welcome or greeting, and kissing between women is done when they are familiar with each other.
Some negotiations are held at the office, while others are held over lunch at a restaurant (business dinners are rare). Lunch usually takes place around noon, and is an affair that lasts about an hour and a half. Though Panamanian women are still rare in business, their presence is growing. Foreign businesswomen may include their spouses in the invites to business dinners. Wait to be seated, as the host usually sits at one end and the honored guest at the other. Men are expected to stand when women enter or leave the room. And while many business conversations begin with small talk about family, hobbies, or sports (avoid talking about the Canal, race problems or politics), sometimes the host, especially if pressed for time, may dive right into shop talk.
Gift giving in Panama is not expected, but meals of thanks are acceptable. Gifts are appropriate if invited into a Panamanian home or in the rural areas. Gifts should be from the your home country or state, perhaps a local craft or an illustrated book. The latest electronic gadget or expensive liquors, chocolate, wines, and Scotch are appropriate and appreciated.
Respect for others and knowledge, even a precursory knowledge of culture and society of different countries will put you in a more favorable position to do international business.