The practice of exchanging of business cards has long been an essential part of doing business in the world, yet nowhere is this exchange more significant, more formalised, or more important than in Japan.
For foreign staff new to working in Japan, the formalities involved in meeting and greeting one’s business partners might seem daunting to begin with, until one realises that they actually negate many of the uncertainties in meeting people for the first time, and allow meetings and negotiations to flow more smoothly.
Meishi – The Japanese Business Card
Just like business cards anywhere in the world, meishi (pron. may-she) carry such essential information as one’s name, one’s company name and logo, and contact information. Some are very conservative in design, while others may be more aesthetically expressive, with embossed logos, brush-script fonts, or other motifs, whilst others may be bi-lingual on two sides. Many in my personal collection were printed on speciality, hand-made card (for the Japanese do love their traditional paper-making artistry).
But whatever its design, a Japanese business card holds far more significance in a cultural sense, and being presented with one demands that the recipient treat it with the greatest possible reverence, both at the time of exchanging meishi, and for as long as that acquaintance remains professionally or personally apposite.
A meishi one has been given must never be treated as disposable. Although I am now semi-retired, I still keep many of the meishi I received over the last twenty-five years or so, if only as a mark of respect for those individuals I came to regard as friends.
Keeping Meishi Safe
Because meishi are only ever given once, the first time you meet someone, it is customary to keep them safe until one is absolutely certain they won’t be needed again, and they should never be casually discarded or in any way mutilated after being received. Asking for another meishi because you misplaced the last one you were given will only go to prove how careless and disrespectful you are. Similarly, stuffing them into pockets or wallets or writing on them is considered the height of rudeness.
Most of us keep the meishi we have received in special albums with plastic sleeves, not unlike 35mm film transparency folders (if you can remember them) and we only prune older ones after many years may have passed or after contacts have retired or died. So, keeping dog-eared, rubber-banded stacks of received meishi at the back of a desk drawer is definitely not de rigueur!
It is not only the meishi one receives that must be treated as sacred, it is imperative too that your own business cards are squeaky-clean and free of creases, or you will come across as rude or unprepared. Nor should you ever have to grope awkwardly for them in pockets, wallets or briefcases; always use a meishi card holder, available from any high street stationery store, to keep your business cards ready and presentable.
The actual exchanging of business cards in Japan follows some prescribed formalities that are not hard to master with a little forethought and practice, so let’s take a step-by-step look at the etiquette or ritual involved:
• Whenever you introduce yourself at a business meeting, it is important to hold your meishi card holder in both hands, bowing deferentially as you proffer your card. Make sure your meishi is the right side up for the other person to read and pushed forward a little so they can accept it easily. Your fingers and thumbs should never obscure your company’s logo or other information. If your meishi are bilingual, make sure you are offering the side up in the recipient’s language. And remember to always present your meishi at a lower level to the other person if they are higher in status.
Maintaining that deferential bow, you can now introduce yourself verbally. The easiest pattern to learn is:
“Hajimemashite. XYZ Trading no Williams to moshimasu” – which means something like:
“Hello. I am Williams of XYZ Trading.” Note that we never refer to ourselves with an honorific suffix, san or sama.
• Receiving meishi, as with giving, should be done with both hands, or rather the thumb and forefinger of both hands. The other person’s card should be taken with a respectful bow, and it is important too that one reads their meishi carefully and never just put it away. Then confirm you have understood the other person’s introduction using this simple pattern:
“Domo. Takahashi-sama desu ne. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” – which means something like:
“Hello, Mr. Takahashi. Pleased to meet you.” Note that we always refer to others with an honorific suffix, sama being the more polite form.
• Once the formal introductions are out of the way, everyone can relax a little and get on with the meeting. However, it is usual to keep the meishi you have received in front of you on the desk or table, and organised by the seating positions of the other people in relation to you. This respectful gesture has the added benefit of helping you to keep track of names that you might otherwise forget.
Formality and Respect
Anyone who comes to live and work in Japan soon learns when and how to bow; in fact, it becomes second nature, so much so that I sometimes find myself bowing to people when I take trips to Europe or the UK!
The important thing to remember is that the higher the status or seniority of a person in relation to you, the more deferential your bow should be. Of course, you should never feel the need to grovel or, out of some egocentric sense of self-worth and omnipotence, resent the status conferred upon you by circumstance, but a well-developed repertoire of bows does go a long way to earning respect in Japan!
A Final Thought
The level of formality in exchanging business cards in Japan can seem strange at first but, like any ritualised convention, it allows people to approach each other and conduct business from a position of mutual respect, which is always a good way to foster understanding.
Observe a few simple rules and protocols, as your Japanese colleagues do, and meeting and greeting business contacts will soon become second nature to you. Then, everyone you meet – customers, clients or suppliers, etc. – will be impressed by your grasp of Japanese business culture, in turn giving them confidence in their dealings with you.
By Bill Ambler
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