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Reflections on an American businessman abroad

The other night I enjoyed a pleasant meal with a business contact, who works in the property industry and for a large U.S. company. He was talking to a group of people and struck me as a thoroughly charming fellow: articulate, funny, interested in other people, highly intelligent. And then he said something that slightly vexed me in that he started to go on and on about how we must be so appalled by this nutcase rightwinger in the White House, how most Americans were insular and dumb, yadda-yadda. It was so obviously an attempt to deflect what anti-American prejudices potentially might have existed by getting in the blow first. He was, then, slightly surprised me when I said over a drink later that I did not like the way that Americans felt the need to abase themselves this way, or denigrate their home country, or its people. In fact, I told him that, much that I disagreed with many of Bush’s policies, such as his fiscal profiligacy and Big Government leanings, I liked the United States a great deal, not least much of its culture, its vitality and the niceness of most Americans.

So a gentle tip for American travellers from this Brit: don’t slag off your own country when abroad. The locals will see through it and despise you for it. Be proud of what you are as an individual living in Jefferson’s Republic, which for all its faults is the greatest free nation on the planet, and likely to be so for a while to come.

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69 comments to Reflections on an American businessman abroad

  • How is the US the freest nation on the planet? Sure, in a few areas (guns and free speech) that may be so, but I think all the other ones outweigh the good things.

  • Jake

    This guy is not going to last long in his job. Discussing politics in a business setting is the stupidest thing you can do in business.

  • An insightful observation. A number of Americans do seem to feel a desperate desire to be forgiven by the rest of the world for their (presumably) less enlightened countrymen daring to elect Bush, which they will express apologetically to all and sundry when abroad. Tedious in the extreme.

    Johnathan – how did your colleagues react to this self abasement?

  • Verity

    Scanian Red writes: “Sure, in a few areas (guns and free speech)” … What else is there?

  • Julian Taylor

    How is the US the freest nation on the planet?

    By what yardstick would you say that the USA not the freest nation on the planet? With possibly the exception of Australia and a few former British island colonies or protectorates I don’t think there’s another country that enshrines personal liberty better than the US does.

  • That American Business man you refer to is what we refer to has “PTOP”. (People from that other Planet).
    Unfortunately we all have to live on this one little planet. 🙂

  • That American Business man you refer to is what we refer to has “PTOP”. (People from that other Planet).
    Unfortunately we all have to live on this one little planet. 🙂

  • I can just imagine that businessman coming back to the US and telling everyone at a cocktail party how he made sure to distance himself from Bush and the average American redneck, because he wanted to get in good with those oh-so-sophisticated Europeans. And I am so glad that a European with some brains put him in his place. Won’t make any difference, but it put a smile on my face.

  • Verity

    A European didn’t “put him in his place”. A Brit did.

    And I simply cannot imagine your scenario.

  • OK, a Brit! But, yes, as he was pandering, he was imagining to himself how he would boast when he got home about his ability to ingratiate himself with the smart Euro-chic set in London. And how all the phony lib-women would smile at him with shiny-eyed admiration. He also probably prides himself on his ability to go to a barbecue in Texas and fit in with the “good old boys” as well.

  • toolkien

    The US (and the States) has the most codified law in the history of the world. Practically speaking, more laws = less free. From another angle, the US has taxes of the GDP that is slightly less than many European Countries (setting aside those whacky Scandanavians) and a defined benefit time-bomb only slightly less catastrophic as well.

    With controls over money supply, interest, and inflation, as well as energy, health, and as “insurer of last resort” the US is hardly free. I guess I can’t feel free when any supposed equity I have is more than offset by the public debt, pro-rated. Our freedom of speech is hardly worth more than in other former British holding, where latitude is afforded. And as for gun ownership, local governments can make it such a hassle that for many it’s not worth it.

    Eminent Domain is being used on the flimsiest of excuses, special interests borne from prior socialistic endeavors feed back into the socialistic loop (e.g. the largest lobby in the state of Wisconsin (where I live) is the teachers’ union – the Dems/Liberals set their watch by what they say).

    And at the end of the day freedom is measured by how much one enjoys the fruits if their labor, and how much of it they get to keep. When half of my labor is taken in taxes of one form or another, and staggering debts are accumulating for which I am apparently on the hook to satisfy, I guess I don’t consider myself free.

    If the US is the freest in relative terms, the world is pretty much doomed.

  • The way I see it, as a gun-owning libertarian atheist ugly geek, I’m going to be despised by everyone I meet sooner or later regardless. Therefore, if some Brit wants to despise me for my dislike of socialist warmongers, I will be quite pleased.

  • HJHJ

    Johnathon didn’t call the US the “freest nation” he called it the “greatest free nation on the planet” – not necessarily the same thing at all. Whether you agree, I’d suggest, depends on what you judge “greatest” to mean.

    If greatest means most powerful and influential, most of us would agree. If you means “citizens enjoy the greatest liberties” perhaps not, although they still do pretty well on this front. For longstanding tradition of liberties and freedom from tyranny, I tend to think that we in the UK come out at the top (for all our faults).

  • permanent expat

    Oh, come on! This insecure guy was only doing what everyone else does in a foreign country where he/she senses that there is a latent antipathy to that place whence you came……………any other behaviour confirms you as the “Ugly (fill in your own country)”. I’m a tad surprized to read some of the comment here. Even the fact that you may bash Blair while in foreign parts does not imply that you don’t love your own country. Quite the contrary.

  • Jacob

    Maybe the American beleived what he said ? Maybe he was sincere and not calculating ? Quite a lot people in the US too suffer from BDS (Bush derangement symdrome).

  • dragon

    Received from an American friend today:

    Quote of the Millennium

    Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who is black, was asked on public TV about
    the president. “Well, I really think that he shatters the myth of white
    supremacy once and for all.”

  • Tony Harrison

    Funnily enough, I had almost exactly the same experience twice when in the US on business recently, where people seemed determined to apologise repeatedly for the US, the president, Iraq and so on.

    My take is that inside the US they get very little feedback about how the rest of the world sees them, other than the really spiteful “newsworthy” kind.

    The light came on for me over dinner one night with about a dozen senior managaement types. Only two of them had ever been outside the US, and none were born outside the US. Every dinner party I go to in Australia, the “new” aussies generally outnumber the 2nd or 3rd generation folks, and, yes, there are plenty of Australians who dont travel at all, but not many in the “senior management” class.

    We take our 4 weeks paid leave for granted in Australia! They just don’t get time to travel much.

  • Verity

    permanent expat and others – Most people in the first world are self-deprecating when they go overseas. They know they’re in a foreign country, and if they really believe their own country is the best, they don’t want to come across as talking down. So they lightly talk down their countrymen instead. I have said things like, “Well, the English can’t get over themselves.” French people say things like, “Oh, we’re so insular. We think no one can cook but us.” Germans laugh at themselves overseas. We all do it, I guess as a primitive way to ingratiate ourselves with the natives of the host nation.

    It doesn’t mean diddly. It’s just a way of oiling the social wheels. I believe Johnathan was right to speak as he did, but I don’t think that fellow will remember a word he said once he’s back home, never mind having the dim-witted notion of repeating his bland inanities at a cocktail party.

  • Sandy P

    — a defined benefit time-bomb only slightly less catastrophic as well.–

    Compared to whom?

  • Verity

    A New York Democrat said something crass, bigotted and ignorant. Well there’s a surprise.

  • Exguru

    The first time I went to England the pound had just been cut from $4.03 to $2.75, and everywhere I went the locals insisted that Britain was the freest country on earth, mostly because of the way we Americans treated our Negroes, and how can you? Often someone would ask, “Are you Canadian?” After you said no, they would then say, “Oh,” with disappointment. It was Teddy Boy time in London, with a few black riots at Nottinghillgate. Meat was still rationed, nine years after the end of WWII. Coal dust was everywhere, not least in the Liverpool Street station. You very seldom saw a fiver, and almost never saw a tenner. Newspapers cost three ha’pennies. Never Say Die won the Derby at 33-1, with apprentice jockey Lester Piggott. Drobney won at Wimbledon, also at long odds. There were still a few bombed out lots on the streets, and the surviving buildings were all very dirty–not like today at all. But some things don’t change. Most Americans I saw in Britain then were red as geraniums in their politics, just like the expats you meet there today.

  • Kim du Toit

    Here’s one American who doesn’t apologize for our President when abroad.

    At least, not since 2001.

  • Verity

    Damn’ straight, Kim. And I’m not even American.

  • permanent expat

    Verity: You’re so PC!…………Just as well….or you’d get the total blame for Katrina & be beached, flayed, in Ultima Thule. No matter, you could pay for the services of the (Rev) Jesse Jackson who would democratically get you off the hook subject to a hefty donation to a “charity” of his choice. Does the Robert Mugabe Benevolent Fund for the Rebuilding of Chocolate New Orleans below Sea-level appeal to you?

  • permanent expat

    Exguru: “Ah yes, I remember it well.” Some parts may be a mite cleaner ( I speak not of the moral & family side) and some concrete had been pressure-cleaned but the basic rot is still there encouraged by geranium foreigners. Those times were hard but not necessarily typical…………& Kim du Toit is to be applauded for his “My mum, drunk or sober stance.”

  • The Chocolate Orange Inspector

    permanent expat says: Verity: You’re so PC!…………

    That’s always been my problem. Too forgiving.

  • I live in Massachusetts, and I’m a libertarian.

    I cannot tell you how many times people need to excuse themselves or acquaintences for being, maybe, slightly, almost, not a liberal. It isn’t lefty moonbats. It isn’t centrists or republicans. They are liberal, hear them judge.

    Hearing people talk about “price gouging” or the poor uninsured lacking government backed care … the restraint I need at the lunch table at work is ridiculous.

  • dearieme

    Well said, blogger, mostly. But was it really necessary to undermine the good work by reminding them that their Republic is associated with that twat Jefferson?

  • Robert Schwartz

    If you go to NYTimes.com and read the letters to the editor on a regular basis, you will see that there is a sizable class of Americans who sincerely believe that sort of rubbish. As we say: “It’s a free country.”

  • Actually, I haven’t heard anyone say “It’s a free country” here in many, many years–that expression pretty much died out by the end of the 1970s. Nowdays you’d have to be completely detached from reality or a Bushevik (but I repeat myself) to believe that.

  • Going back to the original subject, here’s a great t-shirt. Guaranteed to be appropriate regardless of who is in office!

  • Johnathan Pearce

    As I said, I regard the US, if only by its sheer size and influence, as the greatest free nation on earth, not always the freest, not quite the same thing. Maybe I should be less touchy but please, commenters, read what I say, not what you think I said, thankee kindly.

    Another commenter referred to Jefferson in insulting terms. How so? The man was one of the architects of the Republic.

    Whether this businessman was sincere or not I cannot tell. There appeared to be something slightly gushing about his words, which got me smelling a rat. I have noticed this sort of thing before. I have no idea if this guy will take my words to heart. Anyway, he’s a nice fellow and I will be doing business with him in the future.

  • HJHJ

    Ken – The irony, of course, is that whether you agree with him or not, Bush most certainly is not an idiot. He’s a lot brighter than those who caricature him as an idiot.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    One other thing, what the heck is permanent expat wittering about? Been on the Jack Daniels late a night?

  • J

    The last few business trips I’ve been on _to_ the U.S. have also resulted in this kind of mildly apologetic comment. I think this is just simple politeness, much as Brits might apologise for British food or decript old office buildings. I may feel (in fact I do) that our office buildings are quaintly preferable to the anonymous, glass, cubicle filled sheds that the US uses. I may think (I do..) that it’s reasonable to walk up three flights of stairs (we don’t have a lift). But I recognise my business visitors might think this rather poor, and so I apologise for our old buildings with lame self deprecating jokes about elevators not reaching this part of Britain yet.

    This is standard politeness. There’s nothing wrong with being polite. There’s especially nothing wrong with putting your political (or architectural) ideology on hold to do it.

    However, I perceive in some US business people genuine annoyance about the US’s image. The contempt held for the current administration by, well, the rest of the developed world may be wrong, ill informed or even venal, but it’s impact on business is starting, perhaps, to be significant.

    I’ve always liked the fact that business prefers moderate, stable government, and finds wars and conflicts of all kinds to be unprofitable. It is a useful influence.

  • HJHJ

    I think there is no monopoly on decrepid offices on either side of the Atlantic. My last two companies both had very swish offices in the UK and horrible HQ offices with impersonal cubicles in the US.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    J, I totally agree that common good manners suggests that people should put certain views and issues on hold when abroad. I do that all the time on my travels. The issue I was writing about here is when a guy seems to go out of his way to denigrate his home nation in the attempt to curry favour with his hosts. That was my impression on this particular occasion.

  • David

    He’s apologizing about Bush ? …. how the hell does he think we feel with that pair of idiots in nos 10 and 11 Downing Street?

  • HJHJ

    David – not to mention Prezza (no matter which residence he’s using). Or Ruth Kelly?

    Mind you, how must it feel to be French? When was the last time Chirac opened his mouth without being a national embarrassment?

  • APL

    Exguru: “You very seldom saw a fiver, and almost never saw a tenner. Newspapers cost three ha’pennies.”

    Ah! the good old days. Even I can remember the days when offering a fiver would get gasps of exasperation from the shopkeeper, because they had to give soo much change.

    Now a fiver will get you two beers and four weeks of sunday newspapers.

    The b****** government!

  • Daveon

    Hmmm… discussing politics in a business setting? Why not? One of the things I detested about living in California was the inability of the locals to actually hold an opinion on anything.

    I’d say that of my North American clients the majority are screamingly anti-Bush with one exception of the guy who does happily describe himself as a Right Wing Republican.

    A lot of Americans I know detest Bush more than most of the Brits I know. That may have something to do with where they live and what they do. But it is an opinion, there is merit in it, and if people have a problem with their country, then they bloody well ought to feel comfortable discussing it.

    Blind pride in your own nation is a dangerous thing.

    I saw an article on CNN today where a blond German girl complained that the problems in her country were due to paying money to Jews. Pride has a nasty side and occasionally needs to be seriously critically examined to make sure that it is worthwhile.

  • Verity

    No more than about 100 Americans in the entire country know what No 10 and No 11 Downing St are, and they all work at State. It’s too provincial to believe that the intracacies of your own country are known to foreigners. They don’t know and they don’t give a stuff. Same with Ruth Kelly.

  • Julian Taylor

    Out of a population of well over 300 million I should think it likely that more than 100 people know what Number 10 Downing Street is, after all a survey published here yesterday shows that Tony Blair is now, albeit proportionately, 60% more popular in the United States than he is in the UK.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Blind pride in your own nation is a dangerous thing.

    Indeed, and I am not aware that I or anyone else said so.

  • permanent expat

    JP: One should know that Jack Daniels is a sipping whiskey. Wittering works better with red wine.

  • mike

    “Hmmm… discussing politics in a business setting? Why not? One of the things I detested about living in California was the inability of the locals to actually hold an opinion on anything.”

    Sure; context allowing. The key thing is surely not to instigate it and not to take the bate when there is still work to be done. Otherwise (and there may be many ‘otherwise’ circumstances) it’s fine so long as you use your common sense.

  • Verity

    Oh, gosh, Julian. Ya think?

    Tony Blair is known, to some – I have been asked “Who’s Tony Blair?” – Americans as the person who inserted himself into the limelight by jumping on a plane and making a celebritiy appearance at Congress. The people who vaguely know who he is “like” him for that reason. They know absolutely nothing about him or his vile politics. The only people who are aware of who Tony Blair really is work inside the Beltway.

    I said to a friend of mine – who knows who Blair is – “Well, Americans think Tony Blair is a good fellow” and he said, “Americans don’t think anything about Tony Blair.”

    If you’re talking of approval ratings, yes, if someone asked them, do you approve of Tony Blair who signed up Britain for the Coalition of The Willing, they would say yes. So he is being “approved” of for a reason that has no resonance with the British voter.

  • John Lynch

    I travel regularly to a variety of European countries. It used to be a part of my business, now it is more to enjoy and keep contact with friends made over the years.

    I find the best way to handle the political is to say what you believe, but be prepared to put a lid on it and move on to other subjects after non-tractable disagreement is found.

    My Dutch friends don’t agree with me, or our (U.S.) not waiting for Europe to come around before we took action; but when the subject comes up, I freely remind them that waiting is more expensive in treasure and lives than taking care of an issue before it gets out-of-hand. There is usually some sputtering, and silence as we contemplate our drinks, maybe it will go another round; but more often we drop it and get to another subject.

    My more passionate Cypriot friends would delight in arguing the points all evening to the dawn hours, but tactfully change subjects when I appear weary of the argument.

    In any case, don’t be bashful about your position, but don’t ruin your friendship by being a bore as these conversations don’t matter as much as your friends do.

    If you are truly a moonbat, you might find some harmony with your thinking, but I think you will find it unsatisfying as the Europeans are actually looking more to understand us than reinforcement of their status quo.

    Wingnuts who can’t cover context and meaning aren’t going to get far either.

  • Verity

    John Lynch, I think the concensus here is, he was probably just saying what he thought his hosts/potential business clients would like to hear. Most of us make a little bow to the presumed prejudices – often mistaken – of the host country before moving on to more interesting talk.

  • John Lynch

    Verity:

    That may be. In business settings, one might say what the host wants to hear; if one has weak character. The host has you out (for dinner, drinks, etc.) in order to get to know you. To find out if you say what you mean, and mean what you say, is an important measure of whether or not you can be trusted to do business with. Avoiding the subject says something, stating what your host wants to hear says something, saying what you believe says something. I suppose being able to explain why you believe what you believe says something as well. Being tactful enough to recognize an awkward moment and move on says something as well.

    Business conversations, while slightly more calculating than social conversation (usually) do not change the rules. You should still reveal your character.

  • John Lynch

    Verity,

    Reading what I just wrote I think it reads harsher than it should. Weak character is displayed if you do not say what you mean; however, having some brief reluctance to engage in political discussion with someone you’ve just met is probably a good statement as well. That “um” and pause and eye contact moment while you assess your host’s willingness and desire to get a real answer as opposed to b.s. is a defining moment in getting to know people. In this instant, if you misread, you could easily dodge the moment by throwing some facile tripe out. Not a good idea.

  • Ex-fallujah City resident

    Yeah, we too are sick of Americans being such shy, modest, self-deprecating stay-at-homes. Why can’t they stand up for themselves?

  • OrneryWP

    “No more than about 100 Americans in the entire country know what No 10 and No 11 Downing St are, and they all work at State.”

    If I’m one of the lucky 100, my knowledge is much rarer than I thought it was. I’m at a university where most of the student population studies abroad during our time here, and it’s a very political school (well, it’s George Washington University, a couple blocks from the White House, so it better be). There are probably 100 people on my block who know about Downing St.

    “Hmmm… discussing politics in a business setting? Why not? One of the things I detested about living in California was the inability of the locals to actually hold an opinion on anything.”

    That’s why I went to university here in DC instead of there. Athough you’ll find many opinionated people up in Berkeley and the Bay Area… just not your favorite kinds of opinions.

  • No more than about 100 Americans in the entire country know what No 10 and No 11 Downing St are, and they all work at State.

    No. 10 Downing Street is pretty well known in the US–I’ve seen it show up in the news almost as much as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. On the other hand, No. 11 I’ve never heard of before.

  • Verity

    OrneryWP – I think students at a university in DC are probably considerably more clued in about international politics than they are in most places. However, congratulations to you and the people on your block.

  • John Lynch

    For my part, the area behind and underneath No. 10 is fascinating. It is officially open now, but I had a tour in Churchill’s bunker before it was open. Very interesting.

    I guess three of the 100 have checked in so far.

  • Rusty

    “Sure, in a few areas (guns and free speech) that may be so”

    😉 It keeps the people that need to be nervous, nervous.

  • No more than about 100 Americans in the entire country know what No 10 and No 11 Downing St are, and they all work at State

    There is a peculiarity I have noted where non-Americans assume that Americans do or should know as much about country X as residents of country X know about America.

    Due to American’s unique position in the world much of the world’s attention is focused directly on America whereas Americas attention is divided across the whole world. It is something like each member in an audience expecting the solitary performer onstage to be aware of each individual member of the audience.

    People always seem vaguely insulted when Americans don’t know the details of their own little part of the world.

  • Verity

    The Americans who are regular visitors to Samizdata will, of course, know Downing Street.

  • Sandy P

    –No more than about 100 Americans in the entire country know what No 10 and No 11 Downing St are, and they all work at State.–

    Odd, I’ve never worked at State and my pic is from June of 1982……

  • Verity

    Shannon has articulated what I was trying to convey. Precisely. Americans are not as focused on Britain as Brits are on America. She put it well: it’s like expecting the star up on the stage to be as aware of every member of the audience and as they are of her.

    To all the Americans who raced forward to dispute my figure of 100, I hate to say it because I love America, but Americans do tend to be awfully literal.

  • guy herbert

    Ken Hagler,

    On the other hand, No. 11 I’ve never heard of before.

    You aren’t doing so badly. Most educated Britons know nothing about No.12.

    I don’t know myself, without looking at Hibbert & Weinreb, how many other houses there were before Ministries got built on their sites. And I’d be hard put to identify any Parisian political building at all.

  • Simon Jester

    The Quai d’Orsay is the French foreign ministry, but I’ve no idea what/where the French equivalent of no. 10 Downing Street is.

  • In my limited esperience traveling abroad, most people can distinguish between an individual and the gov’t of the country he is from. Also most are pleasantly surprised that I know anything at all about their country. They just expect Americans not to know anything non-American. I never apologize for being an American. I’m more interested in how people see themselves rather than how they see America. Most people I’ve met abroad love Americans. I have no idea why. And I’ve heard of 10 Downing St. But I always wondered how the PM can conduct his affairs from such a small house?

  • toolkien

    — a defined benefit time-bomb only slightly less catastrophic as well.–

    Compared to whom?

    Europe in general is regarded to have a slightly bigger crisis on the horizon than the US when it comes to making good on all the promises made – pensions and health. The US still has a larger influx of able workers, as long as they are on the payroll and taxes are paid, hence the amnesties, AND the birth rate in the US is not declining as fast most of Europe. Huge liabilities deferred and a shrinking productive pool of workers does not make for a good combination. For all of the US’s problems with a $45 trillion accrual debt, most of Europe is a little worse off.

    And none of us free…

  • HJHJ

    Ken – no. 11 Downing Street is actually where Blair lives. Gordon Brown (incompetent Chancellor of the Exchequer, a.k.a. finance minster) lives at no 10.

    It’s not mean to be like this (it’s meant to be the other way around, of course) but no. 11 has bigger family accomodation hence the swap. But you always see Blair at the door of no. 10 as there is an interconnection.

    Brown, of course, thinks that not only should he live at no. 10, it should be his official residence. Can’t imagine why he thinks this, as his tenure as chancellor has demonstrated that he should have started first with experience at the proverbial whelk stall (which would have gone bust under his control).

  • guy herbert

    Ivan,

    It is a whacking great house, and it is directly connected to the Cabinet Office building. Distinctly less impressive to the casual viewer than the Saudi Embassy in Curzon St though, and the latter has some of the same quality of hidden volume.

  • Thank you Guy, I did not know that. In all the pictures of PMs standing in front of it, it looks no bigger than the house in “As Time Goes By.” It does make the PM seem rather humble and quaint, as does Question Time. Something you would never see in the U.S. (sigh).

  • Verity

    Ivan – Nothing could make this self-regarding idiot seem humble. He doesn’t do humble. Although sometimes he does get trounced in PMQ. Behind No 10, there’s a big garden and a tennis court.