One of the perennial topics in Japanese business etiquette is the exchange of business cards, or meishi koukan (名刺交換) in Japanese. It’s a subject that has been addressed many times in all sorts of media, and yet the fundamental rules and social etiquette surrounding the practice are still frequently mistaken.
Today I’ll go over the process of exchanging business cards and present a few choice phrases that should put you in good stead.
The exchange of business cards is a formal self introduction with the aim of remembering the other person’s name and role to aid future correspondence. Especially in Japan, it has well understood protocol that is not to be overlooked, and demands more care and attention to the process than is usually found in western countries.
It’s helpful to think of the actual business card itself as being the face of the businessperson. This is meant in both a literal and figurative sense in that the business card contains vital information identifying the other person, and also that it demands the receiver treat the card itself with the utmost respect, as if it were a physical extension of that person.
Although there are many nuanced steps in the dance of exchanging business cards, identifying the core points will help avoid embarrassing situations. If nothing else, remember these!
1) The highest ranking people exchange cards first
2) Give and receive cards using both hands
3) Ensure the card is turned towards the receiver
4) Keep received cards on display for the duration of the meeting
In a group of people higher ranking officials should exchange business cards first, leading down the chain of command in order. You may be the person in charge of the meeting or even the sales representative, but the chances are you won’t be the most important person from your company. Always let your superiors exchange their business cards first. The other side will also do the same, leading to a natural progression down the chain. This is very helpful in learning who is in command (and thus who the decision-makers are) and it is also important later on when making correspondence, so be sure to keep the cards you receive in order.
When actually exchanging cards between two individuals, generally the visitor will be the first to offer their card, using both hands, of course! Alternatively, the lower ranking person will offer their card first (in situations where this is clear to both parties in advance). When not clear, quite often a simultaneous exchange of cards will occur, as detailed below.
Below I’ll describe in detail a standard exchange of business cards between two people. One rule in particular that is immediately affected is that which instructs business cards to be delivered with both hands. If possible this rule should be respected, but in practice many cards are exchanged simultaneously such that using both hands is impractical.
1) Prepare the number of cards you will need to exchange
Actually remove the business cards from your business card holder (you must have a holder – using a pocket or wallet is considered rude). Fumbling around trying to remove a card from the holder while the other person waits leaves a poor impression, as does coming unprepared without any business cards!
2) Place your business cards on top of your business card holder
Make sure your cards are facing towards the receiver so that they can read the text. If you have a bilingual card, ensure the correct language of the receiver is facing up. (Sometimes this can be difficult to know in advance, but if in doubt, match the language of the card the other person aims to give to you).
3) Use your right hand to offer your card, holding it by the top corner
Ensure no names or logos are covered up when you offer your card. You will be holding the business card holder in your left hand.
4) Give a brief self introduction
You should introduce yourself as you offer your card with a phrase like the one below. Be sure to mention your company and your name.
Hajimemashite. [Sony] no [Tanaka] to moshimasu.
Hello. My name is Tanaka, from Sony Corporation.
5) Receive the other person’s card
When receiving the other person’s card, it is common practice to confirm their name and say thank you for the card, as below:
Tanaka-san desu ne.
Thank you for your card.
Your name is Mr. Tanaka, I see.
It’s nice to meet you.
(The above English is a literal translation for the purpose of understanding. It’s not a recommended phrase to use!)
As noted before, usually the visitor will be the first one to speak and offer their card, but in practice the understanding of this rule varies, so if the host speaks first, just go with the flow. If the situation has unfolded correctly, both individuals will be offering their cards to one another using their right hand and receiving with their left.
One person gives a brief self introduction, offering their card, and the other person follows with a self introduction and offering their own card.
6) Arrange cards on top of the card holder or on the table in the seating order
When dealing with one other person, business cards are rarely put away straightaway. The standard practice is to keep the card on display for the duration of the meeting (or until a suitable time comes up), usually by placing it on top of the card holder on the table.
In the case of receiving several cards, you should arrange them left to right in the order of seating, as seen from your own point of view. The purpose of this is to learn the names of the people you are speaking to and to show respect. After all, the business card is the face of the other person!
To clarify the exchange, I highly recommend watching this video:
As with much business etiquette, showing an air of respect and politeness trumps rigid adherence to rules. This might sound like a contradiction considering how ritualistic the exchange process seems, but it’s important to remember that each situation will be slightly different and the other parties may themselves have a different understanding of what is considered correct protocol!
It should be your aim to make the process pleasant for everyone involved, even if that means bending the ‘rules’ a little.
Remember though, coming unprepared without business cards is something to avoid and it’s very important that you treat the cards you receive with respect. Definitely do not fold them or write on them unless you have the other person’s approval!