Man handing over his business card

Applying the Japanese Way of Exchanging Business Cards

The act of business card exchange is ritualistic. There’s an unwritten rule that people systematically adhere to when faced in such a situation: you receive the card, you give out yours, you keep the card in your wallet, then you shake hands once more. It is even more true in Japan. The ritual is more complex than the Western way. One wrong move can be disrespectful to the person you’re interacting with.

In Japan, the business card exchange is not exclusive to successful businessmen with letterpress cards. As a matter of fact, a card does not merely contain a person’s contact information and affiliation. There is a metaphysical view on what the card is. Meishi- the Japanese business card- is considered as a ceremonial tool that is seen as the extension of the owner. This means that in the Japanese culture, where being part of a whole matters more than the individual existence, you are faced with the individual’s identity by knowing his or her name and the company to which he or she belongs to.

What can be learned from this Japanese etiquette? One thing that the Americans share with the Japanese is the tendency to consider work as the extension of themselves. Like the Japanese, the Americans tend to overwork by taking fewer vacation days.

The ritual might be rigorous in the fast-paced US setting, but here are some core elements that we can learn:

  1. They have a business card holder for their cards.

It’s normal to have three or so business cards in your wallet, but the Japanese carry a leather card holder for their business cards. Being organized can speak a lot about you. It shows preparedness and capability which can translate to how you handle your job.

  1. The business card exchange is a symbolic start of a business relationship.

Of course, it is not yet a confirmation of business partnership, but acquaintanceship is still some kind of business connection. An introduction is not merely for show and formality, it is a polite act of genuine interest to the possibility of partnership in the future.

people exchanging business cards

  1. They treat the card with respect.

Because the card is an extension of the owner, the receiver treats the card with respect simply by not putting it in his wallet or pocket right away. In Japan, the card is laid out on the table, so the receiver can familiarize himself/herself with the names of the people on the other side of the table. Doing so will show enthusiasm and interest, a common trait when meeting new people, especially to your probable business partners.

  1. The card is a must in every business meeting.

Not having a card with you is not only irresponsible, but it is also impolite for the Japanese. In the Western context, think of it as a refusal to shake someone’s hand. Though forgetting to bring your card doesn’t hold that much gravitas in the American setting, having your own business card will make it easier for people to remember who you are—a necessary trait in building a network.

Today, getting someone’s email from the internet is easy, and saving someone’s contact details on your phone is the norm. Although the digital world can link you to numerous people all over the world, face-to-face networking evokes the kind of trust that online presence cannot give. Having a business card is still the most formal and presentable way of introducing yourself to a probable business partner.