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Cultural Differences Not Lack of Customer Service

You’ve probabaly read how bad customer service is in Panama.  It has been my experience that customer service is excellent but you have to take a proactive approach to get service.  Read this article to understand how cultural differences influence the way customer service is done in Panama.

I was recently in the United States for a conference.  One of the first things I noticed, besides how expensive everything is compared to Panama, is how rude the waiters are.  Well, they are not actually rude but it sure seems that way compared to waiters in Panama.

In Panama after you order then receive your meal waiters will leave you alone unless you ask for help.  They usually won’t check to see if you need a refill for your drink until you ask.  They won’t bring your bill until you ask for it.  (la cuenta, por favor – the check please) If you’re with guests, you can have a nice leisurely relaxing meal and conversation without interruption. Unless, and until, you ask for their assistance, the waiter will leave you alone. A 10% tip is typical and sometimes it is already added in to your bill.

In the United States, the waiters are bugging you every 5 minutes asking if you need this or that.  “Are you finished with that plate, let me take it!”  “Do you want another glass of wine?”  They literally bug you during your whole meal.  It’s impossible to have a conversation with guests because you are getting interrupted ever couple of minutes.  Then before you take your last bite, the check is on the table and they want to know if they can take your credit card for payment.  It feels like they want to rush you through your meal so they can clear the table for the next “tip”. Waiters in the US expect a 15-20% or more tip even if the food was bad and the service was terrible.

In Panama, the same ‘leave you alone” attitude goes with department stores, grocery stores and hardware stores.  The staff will be close by but they will not ask if you need assistance.  You have to ask for help to get help.  Some people think this is bad customer service but it’s not, it is just the Latin American culture.  They will not enter your space without permission.  When you need help say “Con permiso, por favor”  which is also the phrase you use if people are blocking the aisle at the grocery store talking (happens often).  Con permiso is a request to enter someone’s space or an invitation for someone to enter your space.

Panamanians are very polite and will go out of their way to help you but they will usually not offer help until you ask for their assistance.  It’s the Latin American way.

There are many other cultural differences.  If you take time to learn the Panamanian culture, instead of complaining about why it is not like the USA or Canada, you will have more pleasant experience while visiting or living in Panama.  Sure it will be frustrating at times.  Learn to be tranquilo!

Jackie Lange

Jackie Lange is the founder of Panama Relocation Tours and lives in the highlands of Boquete Panama. She has helped thousands of people relocate to Panama.

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  1. Kathleen Smith says

    Things must be different here in the South, what you describe above for the U.S. is certainly not like that here. They are very respectful of your space and will make eye contact rather than interrupt. They also come on by with another beverage rather than ask if you want a refill. They ask if you want dessert, if not, the check is normally “in hand” and many ask if you would like a refill (soda) to go. The only thing I don’t like about service in the South is that everyone calls you “honey, dear, sweetie, etc.” regardless of how old you are or they are.

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