The Evolution of the Business Card

PSOW Staff - Tuesday, July 30, 2013

You stroll into the meeting room, cool and confident. Your interpreter, renowned for his accuracy and clarity, walks professionally by your side. You smile, bow, and shake hands with Mr. Heishi, CEO of a multi-billion dollar company and a potential client. He hands you his business card, both hands delicately gripping each corner of the beautifully ornamented object. 

You smile, jam it in your pocket with your cell phone, and quickly hand him yours.

And lose a $15 million dollar investment astonishingly quick.

Fortunately, this extreme situation most likely won’t happen to you. However, it is still crucial to recognize the importance of etiquette and protocol in regards to business cards. Let’s look at some history behind the modern business card, as well as a few tips on how to properly exchange business cards around the world.

The earliest use of a business card dates back to 15th century China, where a “visiting card”, or business card, marked the desire for a meeting between two individuals. These cards were essential in the self-promotion of traders and businessmen. They could even be delivered to the doorstep of wealthy elites, where a servant would receive and organize all of the cards delivered to the house. Then, the businessman could review all of the cards he had received, and decide who to arrange a meeting with. 

Later, in 17th century Europe, the use of the business card exploded across the continent. Engraved with gold and adorned with delicate textures, the business card became a must-have in the emerging industrial world. Britain, France, Germany, and others all began relying on the business card as a convenient and savvy way to arrange meetings. In the 19th century, a different type of business card emerged, which was referred to as the “calling card”. This new derivative was used more in a social setting, but still possessed a strict and complex set of protocols regarding its use. For example, if a man wanted to visit a woman who still lived with her parents, he would fold down a designated corner of the card, indicating his desire to see her and her alone.

Finally, the revolutionary tool for business made its way to America. In the 20th century, as the United States continued to evolve, its business practices became more complex and formal. The perfect addition to this evolution of American business was the business card. Executives, CEOs, and even people simply looking for work began to advertise themselves or their companies with their favorite new tool. Around the globe, the business card had become an invaluable asset in the world of networking.

As we consider their use today, here’s a simple set of tips that, if followed, will allow you to courteously exchange business cards with entrepreneurs and the like across the world:

• Keep nice, clean, and crisp business cards. 

• Always have a surplus of business cards on hand. 

• Keep a specific container for your business card in order to preserve and organize them. 

• Don't offer a card too early in the interaction and avoid looking pushy and unprofessional. 

• When doing business in a foreign country, always have your business card translated on one side in the client or host’s language. 

• In Japan and China, it is customary to handle business cards with both hands. 

• Never fold, mark, tear, or otherwise alter a business card in the owner’s presence. To some, the business card is an extension of their business or themselves, and thus such actions are extremely insulting. While in some cultures it is customary to write on or make notes on a business card, it is always best to do so after you have left the conversation, never in front of the other person. 

• A comment or other form of displaying interest in a business card is a compliment to the card’s owner.

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