Maybe I hesitated — I’m not sure — but when I said “I’m from the USA” to the taxi driver, things went silent.
I was in Barcelona, Spain, and up to that moment the driver and I had been chatting in Spanish about the coming Christmas celebrations and how Spain really knows how to throw a party.
When he eventually asked where I was from, I said “I’m American,” and the conversation died. From there, it was down to an address and directions, and that was it.
I have never hesitated to say I’m American. After all, I spent my childhood with a true patriot, my father. A retired US Navy captain who served in Vietnam, he made sure to read the entirety of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights each and every Fourth of July. And for most of my life I have agreed with the constitutional principles I was raised with.
The twist in my apple-pie childhood came when I was 19, when I decided to chase a dream of becoming a European-style professional bike racer — not exactly an American thing to do.
I moved to Europe, and I learned the sometimes harsh cultural differences between visiting somewhere else in the world and earning a living somewhere else in the world.
For a few years I rented a small room from a family who worked in construction in rural Spain, and after many long nights listening to the family talk over dinner, I began to genuinely appreciate that the US was not the center of the universe.
Today, I’m a small-business owner, though the majority of my business takes place overseas. I manage a pro cycling team, which may sound a bit fast lane, but behind the curtains it is a business like any other, with a hundred adventurous employees, lawyers, landlords, taxes, and bills (lots of bills). And our world of commerce is very much that of the Old World. The Tour de France and other top races are over 100 years old, and they are the patrimonies of European countries.
For any outsider, this world is a hard shell to crack, even more so for an American who speaks French with a twangy Western accent. But like any small-business owner, over the years I’ve made friends and connections, and I’ve worked diligently to overcome prejudices. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to preside over French-speaking organisations, work on mergers and contracts in Italian, and start a company in Spain.
I was honored to be accepted by my Old World colleagues, and they in turn have embraced the uniquely American entrepreneurial spirit into strongly traditional European contexts. Crossing cultural borders while remaining happily American has always been important to me. After all, we are an American team and an American business, and we are proud of that.
From the pro-business rhetoric put forth by the new US administration, a small business like mine should feel optimistic, which I acknowledge doing initially after watching equity markets soar. But in the months since the election, travels abroad have eroded my optimism. Much of the hard-won trust that a small-business owner relies on abroad has fallen into question.
To be clear, I’ve encountered no outright nastiness. It’s more a chill that I feel when I enter conversations that were once warm and amicable. Whether it’s taxi drivers or lawyers, my interactions in Europe have gone from seamless and fun to anxious and uncertain. My thoughts seem less heard, the accepting nature I had come to expect less obvious.
Not long ago I attended a board-of-directors meeting overseas, and in attendance were people of many nationalities, from South Africa to the Czech Republic. And while the daylong meeting went well enough, when we broke for lunch, dinner, or drinks, I’d get prodded about how the US was doing — and I immediately recognised the tone. It was the same tone I heard after I’d separated from my first wife. Same tone, same look of concern, same questioning gaze. I was viewed as someone in an unstable state. How did this happen? Did he have an affair? These folks politely avoided asking Who did you vote for? But that wasn’t the real question in their eyes, which was: Can we still trust you? — or even Who are you?
So, who are we?
Ideally, the answer to this question is given by all Americans individually, but the president of the United States, for better or worse, defines how Americans are perceived. The president is the leader looked to for direction by the West. Like it or not, how the president is perceived is how we are perceived, and that can make life easier or harder for Americans doing business abroad — most notably small businesses.
As small businesses, we can’t rely on billions in revenue, thousands of employees, and huge tax bases to leverage our way into relationships in foreign lands. We cannot bully our way to success.
Instead, American small-business owners doing business abroad have to rely on people, friendships, and cooperation from our foreign counterparts. If our president is disrespectful to other cultures, and if our political process is in disarray, that reflects poorly on each of us, especially those trying to make a living in the super-competitive global marketplace.
The American dream has been sought after for over 200 years. It’s a dream wherein all have an equal opportunity to succeed on their own two feet, unencumbered by social strata or government interference.
My concern now is, Will the American dream survive? Will we succeed in the increasingly vital global economy if we are no longer perceived as respectable members of that community? In today’s political environment, no, it will not.
The spirit of entrepreneurship is one of our nation’s greatest assets. Inventive, hardworking people have allowed our nation to prosper. Will we continue to flourish if our global neighbours refuse to do business with us?
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