The other day I was driving down Avenida Balboa in the heart of Panama City when I noticed a well dressed man in his forties attempting to wave down a cab. His arm was extended high into the air and the palm of his hand was face out to the traffic.
I immediately thought of New York City and then just shook my head. This guy wasn’t going anywhere fast.
Although he might be on track to for some love from Meir Kalmanson (an artist of sorts, who’s running around New York City dishing out Hi-Fi’s to folks who are hailing cabs).
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People who decide to live in another country are some of the most creative people I know. They are willing to consider that the way something is done in their first country is not necessarily the only way it can be accomplished.
Take waving down the cab—Panamanians believe it is disrespectful to wave overtly to anyone, especially if you are asking them to give you a ride, even if you are going to pay them. Panamanians wave to cabs by lowering their arm to their waist, turning the open hand back to themselves and curling their fingers inward. For them, it’s a subdued gesture which shows respect. I tend to like it much better than the New York version.
A Different Way Might Be Better
I have noticed that sometimes Americans have a difficult time acclimating to cultural differences because they are so sure their way is the best/only way. There are many wonderful things about the United States, but I always think, if someone is going to be successful living in another culture, they need to be able to seize the moment and consider that something different might possibly be better, or at least acceptable.
Consider meal times—is it just a function of fueling up your body or could it be a time of social interaction? Panamanians feel meal times are a gift to be enjoyed, while some visitors want to rush to a fast food establishment and complete the “task” as quickly as possible. Of course, which approach is better can be situational, but to always want to rush through a meal is not the only answer.
Forced Cognitive Flexibility
Clients will often say to me “I do crossword puzzles everyday because I want to keep my brain sharp” and I want to respond, “forget the puzzles, just move to another country and you‘ll be forced into cognitive flexibility.” Another language. Different rituals and routines. Different ways to solve a challenge.
When people come to me looking for property and all they can talk about is the price, I am eager to caution them that their choice should not simply be based solely on a lower cost of living, although that is a great plus! Moving to another country requires an open mind and the ability to be flexible. Without flexibility, I can almost guarantee failure.
A Respectful Group
Panamanians are a respectful group of people. They open their arms and hearts to everyone and they are willing to share their country, but they do not want to be told their way is wrong, in their own country. They will simply walk away if they feel you are not being courteous. Money is not the same to them as it is in many other parts of the world. Dignity trumps everything.
The other day I cringed when I observed a white male speaking, in English, loudly and slowly to a native Panamanian who kept smiling and shaking his head. Undeterred, the man continued repeating things in English. I went over and translated that the English speaking man was looking for a gardener and was not surprised by the return look on the Panamanian’s face. I didn’t need to actually hear the response because his face was saying, “Are you kidding me? You think I could work for this guy? He doesn’t speak Spanish and I don’t speak English. We could probably get around that, but he doesn’t even respect me enough to try in my country to communicate in my language—even a little bit. He doesn’t even see that he is being rude and that he only wants it his way. He thinks I am just a common laborer in a third world country and I am more than that.”
I communicated back to the man that the Panamanian was overbooked and could not help him and suggested he go to the garden shop and inquire about men looking for work. The English speaking man was irritated that he wasn’t able to get the Panamanian to consider his offer for employment. His home may have been beautiful and inexpensive, but he was unhappy because things weren’t working for him like they did in his home country. There was no openness.
It’s Not Just About Money
Don’t move to another country and culture just based on money. Ask yourself if you are flexible enough to embrace the differences, have the ability to figure out why things are done differently and if you are willing to really believe everyone deserves dignity (even if they are feeding their family on 50 pound bags of rice and walking to work).