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NDTO News Article

Consider it Culture: The Rituals of Business Cards

As an ongoing series about Consider it Culture, we can’t learn enough about all of the nuances each culture has, not only in everyday life, but even more specifically how they do business. This month, let’s explore those little pieces of paper we pass around highlighting ourselves and our work connections.

Business cards continue to be a powerful tool for networking professionally and establishing connections. These cards have a language and symbolism all their own. Across the world, different cultures have embraced the business card to reflect value, traditions, status, and even hope.

The history of the business card dates back to 15th century China, then called Visiting Cards and used among the elite, aristocrats, and royalty. Like today’s version, contact information was essential, but these visiting cards often contained more personal information to denote the owner’s interests and served as more of a self-promotion piece. They were given as initial credentials before being accepted into elite functions/locations and signaled an introduction in the future. The receiving party could then decide whether to request a more formal meeting or not.

Adaptations of this practice came to Europe in the 17th century, where early business cards were printed the size of playing cards. The printing press’ popularity became the catalyst for greater accessibility to business cards, or Trade Cards as they were referred to during this time. Tradespeople could pass them out more easily with details of services offered, location, and contact information.

Advancements after the printing press were minimal, business cards saw some changes in size, materials, ornateness, and even color, but they remain physically similar to their earlier iterations. Overall, your business card should provide a sense of professionalism, say something about your company and give the recipient an idea of what or who they are doing business with. A neat or messy layout, color combinations, paper thickness, and the feel all say something about your business. Taking your cards internationally will also require great care and attention to detail.

Dual-sided cards with translations are often appreciated in a variety of countries, and it shows that you want to convey the information to that country or culture specifically and took the effort to do so. Keeping a business card holder is also a needed accessory for overseas meetings as keeping others’ cards in a pristine, safe place is very important.

In many Asian cultures exchanging business cards is a highly ritualized practice when meeting new business contacts, often done with two hands and a bow. The cards should be translated as a sign of respect for the new relationship and should be given to everyone in the meeting. Receiving business cards from others should be done with two hands and a bow. Treat the cards with the utmost care and take time to review the card thoroughly when received. Do not write on business cards, offer creased/folded ones, or put them in a disrespectful place, such as a back pocket. All of these things can be seen as rude.

Japan, for example, has some very specific practices when it comes to business cards. When presenting, take a bow, and display the Japanese side facing up, handing the card using both hands. When you take the card, read carefully, and be sure to clarify any questions or ask for correct name pronunciation. Then, either lay the cards out on the table during the meeting or stow them in a card carrier or formal location to keep it pristine. In South Korea, you will see much of the same ritual, and be sure to bring a lot of cards as they are exchanged frequently.

In Latin America, business cards are still seen as important, but there is less ritual around them. The exchange has no specifically strict protocols, rituals, or taboos. If your cards are printed in Spanish or Portuguese, be sure to lead with that side facing up when presented. Typically, cards are exchanged at the beginning of meetings or introductions, but this can often happen in the middle or end of communications.

Colombians, for example, will excuse a lack of a business card and happily accept a note card or simply add contacts directly into phones or computers. Brazilians may personalize the business card they give to you by bending a top corner as a friendly gesture. Personal contact information appears on business cards in Argentina, and this will often help you bypass administrative staff to connect directly with your counterpart.

Business cards in Africa will look very similar to those you are used to, with company names, logos, and contact information. Business cards are not as readily available or required in all meetings, so do not be surprised if they are not present. Initial meetings and introductions are the most common time to exchange cards. Many African countries find it proper to receive business cards with both hands or the right hand only and avoid accepting cards with the left hand. Avoid storing cards in a pocket, but opt for a more formal location like a business card holder or briefcase. Do make a polite comment about the quality of the card. English is quite common and can be used on business cards. Academic titles are also held in high regard, be sure to include it on your business card if you have one. Often simply attending a university, even if no degree was earned, is seen positively. You will also find that professional titles will be used even if one is not employed yet, so be aware that this is common practice.

Portuguese is appreciated for those from Angola, so be sure to check the official language of the country you are visiting. Less formal rituals are the norm with business cards. You may even find they are only used with the highest-ranking team members in many countries.

In the Middle East, the exchange of business cards is a warm gesture and a firm step to gaining personal connections. More detailed contact information is often present with multiple phone numbers and addresses and is reflective of accessibility.

In Egypt, business cards are seen as credible and provide legitimacy to a business when used, but the card can be exchanged at any time during the meeting. Consider translating business cards into Arabic to show respect for the local culture. In the United Arab Emirates, business cards are not required, but if you have them, one side should be in Arabic and provided to your counterpart.

As you can see, business cards transcend their basic informational purpose. Even after six centuries of use, they are still as important as ever. Taking the time to learn other cultures’ customs around exchanging business cards, the meaning and nuance provided in the exchange, and the information presented can often be missed. Consider these things the next time you hand out one of your business cards which will surely leave an impression. Just be sure it’s the right one.