If you’ve never done business overseas, you might not realise that business card etiquette is a real thing! Most people that hand out business cards do so without thinking—you talk to somebody that you want to connect with, and if all goes well, you’ll say “Hey—here’s my business card!”
But elsewhere, this might be seen as unprofessional (or even rude). And that’s the last thing you need when you’re trying to establish a new contact or do business with somebody.
So, what rules of business card etiquette do you have to follow? Are they the same all around the world, or do they differ in different cultures? Let’s find out.
Business Card Etiquette: General Guidelines
Below are a number of general guidelines, each of which will improve your chances of establishing a successful contact. Some of them only apply when abroad, but others apply when accepting or offering a business card in any situation. You have to learn how to follow this basic etiquette before thinking about culture-specific guidelines!
Make Sure You Bring Enough Cards
Forgetting to bring enough business cards—or forgetting your business cards, full stop—is a cardinal sin. You should always carry your card case with you, with at least a couple dozen cards inside. This will ensure that you always have enough, because you may have to hand out several at the start of a meeting. You don’t want to leave anyone out!
Why is this important? Because you may have just spent the last twenty minutes talking to somebody who could make a great connection, and they’ve handed you their card… But you pat your pockets, only to say “Hold on—I think I’ve left my cards at home.” Needless to say, the contact won’t be impressed.
This applies whether you’re handing out business cards at home or in a foreign country. Forgetfulness isn’t a sign of business success no matter where you’re from.
A related point is to keep your business cards in the same place at all times—like an inner jacket pocket. Having to pat yourself down to find your cards looks awkward, as if you never have to give them out. Definitely not a good impression to give.
What Language Should Your Card Be In?
This is one of the easiest business card guidelines to get wrong. Let’s say that you’re travelling to Japan for a conference. Before you go, you should have special business cards printed for your trip: one side should be in English (or whichever language you primarily do business in), and one side should be in Japanese.
When you present your card, you should present it with the Japanese side up, for ease of reading. Naturally, you should print your cards in the language of whatever country you’re visiting, not just Japanese!
Why is this important? Consider for a second if the situation was reversed. At your conference, you’re given a card—but it’s all in Japanese. Not being able to read Japanese, you don’t know who gave you the card or what they do!
It’s also disrespectful. It comes across as assuming that they can, or should, speak English. Contrast that with the thoughtfulness of having special business cards printed for your trip, and it’s obvious why it’s important.
What to Do with a Business Card When You’re Given One
Another basic thing you can get wrong is what you do when you’re given a card. Because you’ve likely been talking with the person before receiving it, you’ll already know much of what’s written on there. As such, your first instinct might be to put it straight into your pocket. But that’s a big no-no.
Why is this important? It shows a lack of respect. It might not occur to you that it’s in any way disrespectful—but again, contrast it with other things you could do. Better etiquette would see you look at the card, comment on it, and clarify any questions you might have about it before putting it away.
When Should You Offer a Business Card?
Finally, you should only give your business card at certain times during an interaction. The done thing is to offer a card either at the beginning or the end of your meeting. This allows you to gauge whether or not the person will be receptive to one… And there’s no point giving a card to someone who doesn’t want one.
One thing you shouldn’t do is offer a card to somebody you’re not talking to. At best, if you’re handing out cards indiscriminately, you’re wasting your own time and money. At worst, you’re essentially passing out junk mail to people who didn’t ask for it—which is definitely rude. This applies wherever you’re doing business: at home in the U.K., or abroad.
Why is this important? The point of a business card is to form a lasting contact. As such, you would typically give one at the end of a meeting. If you already know that you’re going to do business together, then giving one at the beginning of a meeting makes sense too.
Not only that, but to give one halfway through a meeting is a little presumptuous. You’re assuming that the person wants to do business with you, rather than waiting to see the direction that the meeting is heading. Maybe they don’t want one!
And, of course, handing out business cards like it’s going out of fashion is essentially real-life spam.
Culture-Specific Business Card Etiquette
Now it’s time to think about how each culture designs and offers their business cards. Asian countries in particular have guidelines that most people follow, which it would benefit you if you followed too.
Chinese Business Card Guidelines
The most basic rules of giving business cards all apply in China, too. Make sure that you:
- Offer the card face up
- When receiving a card, study it, and don’t write on it
- Treat the practise of giving and receiving cards with respect
You should offer the card with both hands in a respectful gesture. This is the done thing across Asia, and it makes sense: it makes the giving and receiving of business cards into an important act.
When designing a business card to give to Chinese contacts, using red and gold as the primary colours you design with would be a smart move. In Chinese culture, red symbolises good fortune, while gold (naturally) represents wealth. These meanings attributed to colour are more important in China than anywhere else in the world.
When designing your card, though, don’t go overboard: gold lettering with a red logo, for example, would be tasteful but effective.
When translating your business card, don’t just ask for it in ‘Chinese’. Chinese has many dialects, the most common being Cantonese and Mandarin. Mandarin is the most widely used—and is the official state language—while Cantonese is by far the more common in the south-east (in Guangdong and Guanxi provinces). So, check where your contacts will be from and adjust accordingly. If you’re not sure, go with Mandarin.
Something else to note is that Cantonese is the language most commonly spoken by Chinese communities abroad, e.g. in the U.S. and Europe. If in doubt, ask somebody who will know!
Japanese Business Card Guidelines
Japanese culture is known around the world for being centred on respect. Giving and receiving business cards is no different—it’s practically ceremonial.
Japanese business cards, known as meishi, have carried great weight since Japan’s economic miracle following the Second World War. And because of their importance, and Japan’s unique culture, the giving and receiving of meishi has become ritualised and important. There are a number of things you can easily get wrong:
- You should never receive a business card but refuse to give one in return.
- You should never bend a business card you receive.
- You should never write on a business card you receive, at least in the giver’s presence.
- You should offer the card with both hands (just like in China).
- You should offer the card face-up, so that the person who receives it doesn’t have to turn it over.
It’s also advised that you carry a business card case with you at all times. When you receive a card, you should put it in here rather than in your pocket. Having a holder would also avoid the embarrassing situation of receiving a card but not being able to give one, because you forgot yours at home!
The last thing to remember is that the importance of meishi means they shouldn’t be handed out left, right and center. In the Western world, business cards are handed out to any potential contact, or even pinned to notice boards. But if you hand out business cards to anybody and everybody you meet on a business trip to Japan, they lose their prestige. It’s better to hold onto them and only give them out when necessary.
Middle Eastern Business Card Guidelines
Traditional Middle Eastern business cards look similar to those from elsewhere in the world: they feature your name, address, website, phone and fax number, as well as the company’s logo. But when giving and receiving business cards, the exact protocol differs by country.
- In the U.A.E., guidelines are relaxed: you can hand them out during any occasion.
- In Bahrain, business cards are given away to practically anyone you meet in a business setting.
- In Israel, again, there are no hard rules—although they’re typically handed out at the beginning of a meeting.
One rule you shouldn’t ever break is that a card should always be handed out with your right hand. It’s very disrespectful to use your left.
Indian Business Card Guidelines
Last but not least, India has several guidelines as to the giving and receiving of business cards. Just like the Middle East, you should never offer your business card with your left hand; always your right.
Translating your business card is a little more difficult for India, as the country doesn’t have just one official language—it has two Hindi and English, alongside 22 scheduled languages which are commonly spoken in different states.
This makes it difficult to know which language to use! Hindi is the most common, with the language and its dialects accounting for the main language of 44% of Indian citizens. As such, it’s no great sin to use English. But if you know which language the receiver does business in, feel free to print one side in that language too.
Aside from that, you should consider putting your academic achievements on the card. These are highly valued in India—more so than in other parts of the world. So, if you have university qualifications (and especially postgraduate qualifications), make it clear what they are and where you got them from on your card.
Business Card Etiquette in the U.S.
Guidelines in the U.S. are more relaxed than they are elsewhere in the world. If you’re generally quite polite, then you won’t fall foul of any hidden rules you weren’t expecting. A few things to note:
- It’s not impolite to write in the blank space on a business card, either before you offer one, or after you receive one. In fact, if you’re offering a personal email address or phone number, it’s a good thing.
- If you’re aware that the meeting will be business related, feel free to offer a card before it starts. This will avoid any embarrassing moments where you forget one another’s names.
In terms of design, there really are no rules to be aware of. Feel free to opt for something flashier than average. People from the U.S. have easily been the biggest users of business cards over the last few decades.
As such, there’s more of a backlash against boring, plain
white business cards here than elsewhere. With an eye-catching design—especially
if you run your own business, or work in a creative industry—could go a long