Our journey begins in Europe during the 1600s. Business cards were used by elite members of society, such as kings, queens, and other members of royalty, to announce their imminent arrivals at various townships and cities within their own and other realms. At the time, business cards took on a much different aesthetic—they looked similar to playing cards, and they certainly didn’t contain the contact information of the elite members of society that were visiting.
Over the years, business cards started to become more popular amongst middle-class members of society. With popularity comes innovation. Soon, business cards contained elaborate artwork, embroidery, and even the inclusion of precious metals such as gold. Your card and its decoration were a status symbol of sorts, even if it served little practical purpose.
By the 1700s and 1800s, business cards had made their way into everyday high society. When a woman entered a house she had never been to before, she would be asked to place a card on the “card tray”. The card would then be delivered to the lady of the house, who would inspect and judge the card as she pleased. In these types of high society interactions, your business card could make or break your first impression, and subsequent relationship, with the owner of the house.
By the 1830s, business cards had started to look like modern-day business cards. Businesspeople would offer their cards to potential customers and clients. Since the telephone hadn’t been invented yet, the business cards of the time contained maps on how to get to the owner’s shop or residence. As technology advanced, business cards advanced with it, eventually resulting in the business cards we see today in our modern world.
Japan’s business card culture is formal to the point of being borderline ceremonious. More than any other country, if you ignore business card etiquette in Japan, you may very well ruin your chances of forming a successful business relationship with another person.
When handing out your business card, do so with both hands. Such a gesture indicates formality and respect for the person receiving the card, even if it feels a little silly when you do it for the first time.
When receiving your business card from another person, gently take the business card in both of your hands carefully and make an effort to genuinely examine it. If possible, make a small comment on a particular aspect of the business card—for example, if you recognize the area where the company is located, make note of that. Once you’ve made it clear that you appreciate the card, put it away carefully without bending or folding it.
Overall, treat the card as an extension of the other person and you’ll make a good first impression in Japan.
In typical Western culture, business card etiquette is fairly straightforward. As long as you don’t commit any of the universal transgressions talked about at the start of this article, you probably won’t offend anyone.
Keep in mind there’s more to business card culture than simply not offending the other person, though. As a businessperson, you want to be smooth. Rather than handing out your business card for the sake of doing so, look for an opportunity where handing it to the other person makes sense. The last thing you want is for the other person to politely accept your card—with no intention of ever getting in touch with you.
Business card culture in the Middle East varies greatly by country. For example, in Israel, business culture etiquette is fairly relaxed and mimics that of the U.S. and Western Europe. But in a country such as Bahrain, taking a business card without giving it proper examination (as is expected in Japan) can be seen as a sign of disrespect.
Overall, there is one element of business card culture that rings true across almost every country in the Middle East: do not hand out a business card with your left hand. For better or for worse, in the Middle East, the left hand is seen as being reserved for uncouth acts. Doing anything with your left hand—even if you are a lefty—can be seen as a sign of disrespect, especially in the realm of business.
When you go to China, you’re expected to have a double-sided business card. The first side contains your information in English. The other side contains your information in “Simplified” Chinese characters. (Note that there are two Chinese alphabets: Simplified and Traditional. Traditional is used only in Taiwan and Hong Kong, so mixing them up is a clear indicator that you’re not familiar with the culture, which may be seen as a sign of disrespect.)
China is also unique in that your role within a company is paid more attention to than it is in other countries. For example, in the U.S., you may get some strange looks (and eye rolls) if you claim to be of much higher importance than you actually are, whereas in China, taking some liberties with the importance of your role is not only accepted, but often expected.
Certain business card behaviors are viewed in a negative light no matter where you happen to be in the world.