Business card customs vary across the globe: Design and distribute yours appropriately
By Neil Forrest
A universal method of exchanging contact details the world over, the business card is an integral element of global commerce and professional relations. Just as nations have different customs in inhabitants’ everyday lives, they attach different meanings and etiquette to the exchange of their business cards. Depending on where you are in the world, the business card, though it might be designed in the same format as any other, will need to be presented using local, socially approved methods.
You wouldn’t go into a business meeting in the U.K. and flout all socially accepted norms, such as wearing appropriate business dress or shaking someone’s hand. That said, when travelling on business in countries like China, Japan or Germany, it is crucial to learn the business card etiquette that executives follow there.
The U.K. & the U.S.
Great Britain and the U.S. both have fairly relaxed ideas about the exchange of business cards. It is not an especially formal process; they may even be handed out in multiples to pass on to colleagues or other interested parties. Though there aren’t any strict rules regarding how the cards are exchanged, there are some very obvious guidelines with regard to the state of the card itself. Business cards are treated as an extension of the person to whom they belong, so a scruffy or ragged business card can send the wrong impression entirely. Ensure that business cards are presented in ideal condition when conducting business in these locations.
While in the nations discussed thus far business cards tend to be reserved for those who are considered businesspeople, Japan has a different ethos entirely. Virtually everyone over the age of 18 has his or her own business card, and there are specific customs to follow when exchanging them. It is customary in Japan to hold out business cards with both hands when offering one to a business associate, and likewise to accept a business card with both hands. This is a sign of great respect, which is incredibly important to the people of Japan. After the card exchange has taken place, one typically is required to state his or her name and title. Bowing after this exchange also is considered good practice, though Japanese professionals often replace this action with a handshake when dealing with foreign clients so as to give an indication of their respect.
As with Japan, the exchange of business cards in China involves a double-handed presentation of the card. Text must be on the top and presented such that it can be read as it is offered, and a title should be clearly listed. Many people travelling to China on business choose to have their cards translated into Chinese, making it easier for their hosts to accept their details. The regional variations between Mandarin and Cantonese can be very complex, whereas simplified Chinese has the most commonly used characters and will be the most easily recognizable to the largest number of people. The use of the color gold on business cards, while not strictly a Chinese custom per se, is considered to bring good luck; business cards with gold on them are likely to be looked upon positively, so if opting for the translation route, considering adding gold embellishments too.
A veritable hub for business with the powerhouses of Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich, Germany is one of the most popular countries with English businesses that are attempting to move into European markets. In Germany, business cards are not given out freely; they should never be handed out in bulk. Rather, business cards are considered to be more of a personal exchange of information, and all such exchanges should be treated as highly confidential. It is also prudent to include a German translation on the flipside of the business card, if the native language is not already in use. English is widely spoken in Germany, but the gesture is a respectful one and can be helpful in doing business.
Neil Forrest is Director of CardsMadeEasy (www.cardsmadeeasy.com), printers of full-color business cards, leaflets, flyers and other printed products. The company offers proofs and a free design service.