The Simple Art of Exchanging Business Cards in Japan
Japanese Business cards – an essential factor of the identity of any shakaijin (社会人, working member of society) in Japan. Thus business card exchange can quickly turn into a ritualistic minefield. If you never thought much about the topic, welcome to the club. There just aren’t a whole lot of rules on the issue back home.
Luckily, exchanging business cards doesn’t have to be the nightmare many picture. Here is how to do it and what to keep in mind.
First off, just be polite. You don’t need to time every step perfectly or do everything right. What matters is that you make an effort to show respect. Some situations simply don’t go according to the book and most Japanese people will give some extra leeway for foreigners.
That said, if you can exchange your meishi (名刺、business card) smoothly you are sure to leave a good impression.
To help you through the process, here is a list of those things to keep in mind when exchanging business cards.
- ✔ Always stand when exchanging meishi.
- ✔ Have neat business cards, without stains, bends or rips.
- ✔ Start with the highest-ranking person.
- ✔ Take your time to read the other person’s card.
- ✔ Never write anything on a business card you received or play around with it.
- ✔ Leave no card behind! That’s like saying I don’t want to see you again.
Step by step
Getting ready for business card exchange (名刺交換、めいしこうかん) starts way before the actual meeting.
■ Always have plenty
Make sure you always have more than enough business cards with you. Remember to reorder early on if you run low.
■ Carry a business card holder
It is considered rude to pull business cards from a pocket or wallet, so get a business card holder (those leather(y) types, not the plastic cases).
■ Prepare your cards
You wouldn’t want to make the other party wait during the introductions. To avoid fumbling to get your cards out of the case, do it in advance and place them under the cover of your meishi-ire (名刺入れ, business card holder) so you can pull them out easily anytime.
■ Perfect Condition
If you notice a card being bent, ripped or stained, put it away and exchange it for one in good condition.
■ Mind the Distance
Keep a little distance between you and the other party. Respect each other’s personal space, also you don’t want to bump heads during the greeting.
■ Don’t cover the print
When it’s time for the exchange, take your card holder and pull out your card. Place the Japanese side facing up (if available).
Put your meishi on top of your meishi-ire, hold it with both hands (thumbs) on the top corners so you don’t cover anything. The business card in a sense embodies the person, so doing something disrespectful like taking or covering it carelessly is the same as being disrespectful to the person themself.
■ Facing away from you
Out of consideration for the other party, position the card facing them so they can read easily.
When facing a group of people keep in mind two things
■ Start with the big guy (lady)
Always start from the highest-ranking person. This can be tricky when you haven’t been introduced yet, but you should always give your cards in hierarchical order starting at the top.
■ Exchange goes bottom to top
The person in the lowest position offers their business cards first. This is to say, the visitor, the side that is receiving a job or money shows respect to their host or employer.
Hold your meishi with both hands. Keep your arms at close to a 45-degree angle when handing over the card. The number doesn’t matter, the point is to place the card at a height that is convenient for the other person to accept and read.
■ Ritual greeting
はじめまして。Look at your partner during the first word.
〇〇の〇〇ともうします。Say this before diving into the bow (45 degree is plenty). Stretch out your arms a little and slide your meishi to the bottom of your card holder when handing over your business card.
Smile during the process and look your partner in the eyes (except for when you bow down, can you imagine the creepiness of someone staring up at you?)
When the other person is giving you their business card receive it with both hands, keeping it with your thumbs at the bottom corners and say 頂戴いたします (ちょうだいいたします, I accept)。Be careful not to cover anything up.
Make an effort to read the card, confirm the contents by repeating the name.
〇〇さんですね。(If you are in a business situation you might want to say さま) よろしくお願いします。
If you don’t understand something or are unsure about a reading or anything else on the card, now is the time to ask, it’s perfectly permissible. You can further up your game by adding an ounce of small-talk based on the information given on the card.
Now this one is where things gets a little tricky and confusing. Introducing each other’s at the same time, without falling into each other’s words and dropping the cards in the process can require some practice.
Hold your business card in the right hand and the card holder in your left hand.
You want to hold your meishi in the top right corner between your thumb and index finger of your right hand. Be careful that you don’t cover anything written on the card.
What you say remains the same as if you exchange cards one after another.
The lower status person starts by saying はじめまして, the other person will follow.
If the other person ranks above you, you want to keep your card below theirs. (It’s the same when drinking and clinking glasses.)
State your company, and full name in this order. 〇〇の〇〇ともします。Then hand over the card with a small bow, by placing it on the other’s meishi-ire while saying. よろしくおねがいいたします。
When you receive the others card say ちょうだいいたします。Then move on to the check and small talk section.
Once you received the cards don’t just put them away. It can be seen as rude, also it is rude to pull out cards you already put away. Instead, place them on the table. If you received only one card, put it on top of your meishi-ire. If you received multiple cards put them to your right-hand side and line them up next to each other in the seating order, put the card of the highest-ranking person on top of your meishi-ire.
To get comfortable, practice with friends or colleagues, bump heads trying to exchange business cards at the same time without dropping anything or cutting each other off.
If someone acts differently from the textbook approach, adapt to them and go with the flow. For instance, a higher-ranking person might give you their card first. Since refusing them would be impolite, just accept it.
In the end, the important thing is to take a deep breath and chill. Keep in mind the basics, like bringing neat business cards and being respectful. This and a friendly smile will help you over minor details like not finding the perfect words or timing.
Business cards in Japan are not reserved to the stiff business world. If freelance, musician, or hobby enthusiast, you will see people carry and exchange their business cards in all sorts of environments. So get your own set and good luck networking in Japan!