DOING BUSINESS IN PANAMA
Business Customs & Etiquette
Punctuality is appreciated by business people, as is giving your host enough time to plan for your arrival. Thus, you should make appointments at least one week in advance. When you meet with your Panamanian colleagues, a handshake is a normal greeting. Do not rush into a meeting with talk of business right away. Your associates are more likely interested in getting to know you first. The exchange of business cards is important. If it is possible, get them printed in Spanish. This goes for any other literature you will be using for business matters.
Executives and general managers are expected to wear suits, whereas low-level managers usually wear panabrisas, shirts left untucked and worn over trousers. Foreign businessmen should always wear dark suits on their first visit, but later may wear panabrisas if their business associates do at the next meeting. Businesswomen should wear dresses or skirts and tailored blouses. Since Panamanian women are now moving into higher managerial positions, there should be no difficulties for women doing business.
Be aware of the importance of titles: “Licenciado” for a BA holder; “Doctor” for a Ph.D., lawyer or medical doctor; “Arquitecto” for an architect and “Ingeniero” for an engineer.
There are some anti-American feelings felt in Panama. To prevent an uncomfortable situation by saying something that may offend, avoid discussing local politics, the former Canal Zone and racial issues.
Office hours are usually Monday to Friday, 8:00 a.m. to Noon, and then 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Importance of Relationships
Expect to invest a considerable amount of time developing good rapport and a pleasant, relaxed relationship before discussing business. Establishing an atmosphere of trust is a precondition to a successful business relationship.
Good topics for small talk are football (soccer), Panamanian history, literature and places to visit as well as information about your home town and region. You will probably need two or three visits to the country before you can expect to do serious business. Like other Latin Americans, Panamanians value deep, long-lasting relationships.
Orientation to Time
The clock ticks at a different speed for the fun-loving Panamanians. You might find yourself waiting an hour or more for your local counterpart. Visitors should always make it a point to be punctual.
Hierarchy, Status and Respect
In Panama one’s status depends more on social class, education and family background than on personal achievement. Business visitors can enhance their status by displaying a lively interest in intellectual pursuits, dressing elegantly and staying in top hotels.
Expressive Communication Style
A warm and friendly people, Panamanians tend to be talkative, nonverbally expressive and open about showing emotion in public. Don’t be offended if you are sometimes interrupted in mid-sentence — conversational overlap is not rude in Panama. Do however avoid direct confrontation during negotiations.
Never expect to get down to business quickly. Panamanians need some time to get to know you.
Meeting and Greeting
Men and women shake hands warmly when introduced and again when departing. Visiting men should expect to shake hands with another male for a considerable length of time — take care not to withdraw your hand prematurely.
Panama is definitely a high-contact culture. After they get to know each other two men will shake hands and touch each other on the elbow or forearm, perhaps slap each other on the back or shoulder. Male friends will exchange the embrace while women friends brush cheeks with a kissing motion of the lips.
In another sign of friendliness Panamanians stand very close to each other when talking.
Panamanians maintain strong eye contact with the person they are conversing with.
Male executives tend to wear fashionable three-piece suits. Office workers wear the two-piece version. Male visitors should note that proper business attire always includes long-sleeved shirts, even in hot weather. Women in business wear elegant suits or dresses as well as blouses and skirts. Blouses and jackets may have short sleeves.
Forms of Address
Although Panamanians interact fairly informally, business visitors need to take note of certain customs. Address your business counterparts by his or her last name only. Expect to move to a first-name basis fairly soon but do wait until the Panamanian party starts using your given name.
Expect frequent interruptions during business meetings, especially in government offices. This is not regarded as rude or improper behavior.
Wining and Dining
Wise negotiators include plenty of time for socializing during these drawn-out discussions. If you wish to entertain a high-level executive, ask his secretary to recommend a restaurant. It is important to host your counterpart only at elegant, prestigious establishments. Similarly, business visitors should only stay in top hotels while in Panama.
Women drink wine, spirits and liqueurs — beer is considered a man’s drink. Panamanians normally eat a light breakfast between 7 and 9 am and a substantial lunch between noon and 2 pm. Dinner usually starts after 7 pm but dinner parties don’t normally get underway until after 10:00 pm.
Avoid using the side of your fork to cut anything and do not pick up food of any kind with your hands. Although they are a very expressive people, Panamanians do not like a lot of conversation during meals. Wait until coffee is served before talking business, unless your counterpart introduces the topic.
Good gifts to bring from abroad for men are music tapes and small electronic gadgets such as good quality calculators. For women, perfume. If invited to dinner at home bring chocolates, champagne or a container of fresh strawberries. Avoid purple flowers, which are associated with funerals.
Women in Business
Female business visitors who dress and act professionally encounter no great barriers to getting things done in Panama. Unwanted male attention should be politely but firmly ignored.
Panamanians frequently ask friends and business acquaintances for small and large favors and expect these requests to be granted. Be very careful of asking favors of Panamanians however. They might very well agree to do what you ask even if they would much rather not since refusing you would be rude.
Panamanians are known as tough bargainers, not afraid to turn down offers rather bluntly. Such frankness is however not intended to be rude or confrontational – they simply want you to know where they stand.
Negotiators may give wrong or distorted factual information or use the excuse of ambiguous authority giving conflicting impressions about who in their party has the power to make a commitment. Other tactics are designed to put opposing negotiators in a stressful situation physically or psychologically so that their giving in is more likely. These include uncomfortable room temperatures, too-bright lighting, rudeness, and interruptions. Another dirty trick is specific bargaining pressures including extreme or escalating demands, threats to stop negotiating, delays and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.
DOING BUSINESS IN PANAMA