Over the years, my American friends and colleagues have asked me questions around the Japanese custom of business card exchange. What is the proper way and why is it significant? I was born and raised in Japan until I moved to the US to attend college, but it took over 10 years working as a business professional before I had my first experience practicing the ritual of business card exchange.
If you have ever participated in this ritual and felt intimidated by the rather formal ceremony, you are absolutely not alone. Even for a native of the country, this Japanese business etiquette is a learned skill that needs to be taught (or Googled) and practiced.
Background: History of Business Cards Go Back for Centuries
Believe or not, the history of business cards dates back to the 7th century in China. It is believed that the original form of a business card was a piece of wood or bamboo that a visitor wrote their name on and left for their prospect. Fast forward to the 16th century, and it’s been confirmed they had the similar practice in Germany. By the 18th century, the practice of carrying cards with your information and a customized design became very popular among the socialites for networking throughout Europe.
In today’s world, what’s on the cards remains the basic contact information, with an obvious addition of email and website addresses in the last couple of decades. In Japan, the same information is often printed in English, on the back. In some countries, such as the US, exchanging business cards is not as common as it once was, but the importance placed in this ritual remains strong in Japan.
How-to Guide to a Proper Business Card Exchange
Step 1) Identify the highest ranking person in the room to begin the round.
Step 2) Approach that person holding your business card with both hands with the writing facing the recipient. If you own a business card holder, place only ONE of your cards on top of it, with the rest stored inside or underneath.
DO NOT exchange business cards sitting down or across the table
Step 3) Introduce yourself (the visitor) first. State your name, company, and your role. For example, “My name is Yuki Asada from gap intelligence. I am responsible for the relationship between gap and ABC company. Nice to meet you.” It is important to make eye contact as you present your card.
PRO TIP: Hold your card slightly lower than your recipient does. It represents humbleness.
Step 4) Now it’s your turn to receive a business card. When a card is handed to you, RECEIVE IT WITH BOTH HANDS with extra care. Confirm how to pronounce their name, read aloud their department and title, and ask what their role is as it relates to your business.
DO NOT cover any of the information printed on the surface with your thumbs. It is considered rude and disrespectful.
Step 5) After you are all seated, place all of the business cards you received on the table. Placing them in the order that the attendees are seated helps you put the names and faces throughout the meeting and after.
DO NOT put them away in your case, in your bag, or between your notebook
What’s with all this? Why is it important?
Each of the movements represents your respect to your customer and it is your opportunity to demonstrate that you value their business and relationship. If you are from outside of Japan, taking the proper steps to learn and conduct this ritual also shows that you understand and respect your customer’s culture.
I hope this helps with your next business meetings in Japan. And to my kind and patient clients in Japan who have seen me make mistakes, do this ritual incorrectly, and learn (and hopefully improve) along the way, thank you!
Do you have what it takes to be a gapper? Head over the careers section at gapintelligence.com to learn more about open positions. Find more info the bottom of our about page.