What you need to know about swapping cards in Asia

Get it right. Be respectful. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Within just hours of landing in Singapore, I came across a business etiquette custom that I’d not experienced before.

That’s not so surprising considering I’ve only ever been to Singapore for personal travel before. But I still wish I knew yesterday what I know now, so hopefully this will save anyone else on their first business trip to Singapore the same regret.

I arrived at the restaurant, straight from the airport, for dinner with a group of regional executives. After some casual chit chat the businessmen presented me with their cards.

Note “presented” – not “handed”. Because the act in which they gave it to me, with a thumb on each side of the rectangle piece of cardboard and a nod of the head, was just that – presented.

And they don’t call it a business card; it’s a “name card”.

I’ve wasn’t sure if I should do it back or not — my usual one-handed flick of the wrist now seemed rushed or insulting. I did it back.

But why does this happen? And what is its significance?

I did some digging. As it turns out there are many customs in Asia when it comes exchanging information at the start of a meeting, such as that which I had just experienced.

According to Asian Business Cards.com, business cards should be given and accepted with both hands as a sign of respect. This is best practised standing up. This shows that you are open to the opportunity to do business with the other person.

Once you have received the other person’s card you should read it and admire it and place it on the table in front of the receiver for the duration of the meeting so that it can be referred to later on should you need to.

After the meeting, cards should be stored respectfully and should never be placed in a back pocket. It is also impolite to write on another person’s business card, if they are present.

The website also suggests taking a generous amount of cards with you when you travel as almost everyone you meet will want to exchange one with you.

These sentiments are reiterated by business etiquette expert and founder of Executive Impressions, Kara Ronin.

“The way you present your card and the way in which you receive the other person’s card must convey respect,” she writes in a blog post on her website.

“Respect is best conveyed through your body language. Both Japan and China rely heavily on non-verbal communication. This means that your eye contact, head, shoulder and hand movements will all be closely watched and interpreted according to the other person’s cultural programming. They will be looking for signs of respect.”

She also suggests making sure the writing faces the recipient. This makes it easier for the other person to read.

If you have printed your card in Chinese or Japanese — which she recommends — as well as English, then present your card with the other person’s native language facing up. These two actions convey courtesy.

“Finally, consider your business card as an extension of yourself,” she says.

“Just as you would never go to a meeting with your lunch all over your shirt or sit on that important monthly memo:

    • Never hand out a stained, torn or bent business card.
    • Never write on a business card.
    • Never put a business card in your trouser pocket and sit on it!”

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