5 Travel Tips for the Tongue – How Not to Offend Panamanians

Customs and cultures of foreign countries require research before boarding the airplane. Cultural variances involving acceptable dress, personal space and emotional hand gestures should always be top-of-mind. Just as you refrain from making jokes about carrying a bomb when you are at an airport, equally incendiary verbal assaults should be avoided when traveling abroad. In this article I am presenting my personal list of travel tips for the tongue that should be checked at the airline ticket counter before flying to Panama.

Avoid uttering the phrase, “back home we do (whatever it may be) this way.” There is no easier way to tell the world you are an inexperienced traveler. The phrase punctuates the belief that the manners in which things are done “back home” are superior. You chose to travel to Panama in order to experience a different culture. Why would you expect things to be done in the same manner? This phrase is often accompanied by a condescending attitude and an elevated tone of voice. Others are forced to witness your displeasure which is often recognized as an unattractive way to gain attention, avoid tipping or justify exclusion from an activity. This misguided offense should be avoided like malaria. Experiences gained while visiting Panama are best enjoyed when approached with an open mind and a muted tongue.

Refrain from cursing in the presence of women and children. Public profanity is not only a sign of disrespect but points to your own lack of home training. A month ago my husband and I were on a bus leaving Panama City for El Valle when a group of eight young Americans boarded outside of the City. From the moment they took their seats the air was permeated with foul language. Seated around them were women and school-aged children. Perhaps their ill-founded assumption was that the people did not understand what they were saying. Had they been observant, the subtle looks of displeasure from the moms and the curious stares of the children would have given them a clue they were being understood. You are not expected to be a saint when visiting Panama, but certain courtesies should be extended in order to present yourself in a better light. A civil tongue is one of them.

An unwillingness to learn a few basic words in Spanish is a sign you are not ready to play the travel game. How difficult is it to learn to say, “hola” (hello), “por favor” (please) or “gracias” (thank you)? I often detect no lack of difficulty in learning the word “cerveza” (beer) proving ignorance of the language is selective. Simple phrases can be learned online through translator programs which demonstrate pronunciation techniques. Take the time to learn them. Panamanians don’t expect you to be fluent in Spanish but they will show a great appreciation of your effort at trying to communicate in their language. They will be glad to help you learn some useful phrases and an educated tongue will help make your experience more enjoyable.

Any attempt to bargain artisans down to a ridiculous price is a sign of disrespect. These artistic professionals offer original, handcrafted items and expect to earn an honest living for their efforts. Don’t treat their art as second-hand junk by insulting them with your desire to get the most for least. If an item feeds your interest, understanding how much effort goes into the crafting of the item helps build value. My mother and I visited the Emberá Puru village where woven products with intricate and colorful designs were displayed for sale. A young villager introduced information about the community and its customs as he passed around a sample of an unfinished basket. We learned of the extensive, painstaking efforts involving the use of many threads in a variety of colors. We had a greater appreciation upon learning the cost of each item represented the number of days the artisan worked to complete the task. The price worked out to be $1.00 for each day’s work. The last time I worked for $1.00 per day including the price of materials was…NEVER! Gaining an understanding of the efforts of Panamanian artisans and demonstrating an appreciative tongue shows you value their culture.

This final tip comes from ancient times. The book of wisdom in the Bible says, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Proverbs 12:19) Every encounter while traveling abroad is your opportunity to be an ambassador for your country. Make the most of it and let your respectful tongue be your guide.

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