Business cards and social norm
In most Chinese cultural awareness seminars, trainers will explain that in China, there is a certain way in which business cards are given out. That is handing them out with both hands and potentially 1/2 bowing. Also, exchanging business cards is normally the first thing that happens (mostly) at any business meetings.
This is all good advice and there is nothing worse than going to China, handing out cards as we do it in Australia then finding out that your potential business partner thinks you are rude.
Have people actually wondered why Chinese people do this?
I was on the Super Trade Mission with the Victorian Premier to China last year and colleagues on the same trip asked me additional questions:
- where should you put your business cards?
- I hear that you should ‘study’ the cards after receiving them, how long do you need to do it for?
- what happens if your card is dirty?
- is it ok to write on the business cards?
These are all very important questions especially when you are trying very hard to be respectful, as most Australians were on the trip.
What you can and cannot do really comes down to one very basic essence of the Chinese culture; respect. Additionally, subtle messages are perceived from symbols.
Business cards are not just a piece of paper with your name and contact details. In the Chinese culture, the business card symbolises you.
It IS you.
In answering the 4 questions:
- Place them in a place where cards are looked after. There is nothing to prescribe where you should have them. A card holder is good, because cards will be protected. This is more about self respect than exactly where cards are kept.
- If you read cards after given them means that you have an interest in the person you are speaking to. Again there is no prescribed period but you will be noticed and it can be seen as an indication of how much you want to know the person you are speaking to. Taking too long can also be regarded as fake though. A balance is good.
- The last two questions have the same answer. Dirty cards or writing on the cards mean you have no self respect. As mentioned before your business card is your brand. Dirty cards may be perceived as you are dirty. Writing on cards is similar, however, many Chinese now also write on cards (especially if they’ve changed their contacts), but it may sometimes be seen as disorganised person (i.e. can’t even prepare the right cards). Of course, because now cards are much more common than they used to be, so it is that these practices are vital at important functions but not as important in normal business meetings.
You might even notice that people in the low ranks do not always have cards, because their status does not require cards (although this is also changing).
If you understand the importance of respect in the Chinese culture and what the card symbolises, and when in doubt, go back to basics, the questions will resolve themselves.