Like most things that are part of everyday life, business cards have become almost become so prevalent, as to have lost all meaning. But they have a long history that might not be so well known.
The first cards were introduced in France in the 17th Century during the reign of Louis XIV as visiting cards, to announce to a host the name and status of their prosperous or aristocratic caller, including all titles, thereby giving the host a chance to officially greet the visitor as their social standing dictated. Cards at this time were about the size and shape of playing cards, and became increasingly elaborate.
Shortly, businesses (particularly in the UK) started to use the cards as trade cards, and early form of advertising. They often had maps printed on them, so that customers could more easily find the vendor. Although originally quite simple, their design became increasingly lavish as printing technology improved, moving away from the original letterpress, towards copperplate engraving, and lithography allowed the introduction of colour around 1830.
The improving technology, however, was responsible for the downfall of this form of business advertising, as the improvements in the printing and circulation of newspapers provided a cheaper and more efficient way of raising awareness.
Cards survived throughout the 19th Century, but predominantly as calling cards, rather than business cards. It had been considered in very poor taste to use a business card as a calling card, but during the industrial revolution the social constraints relaxed, and the use of the trade and calling cards merged as contact information became more important.
Nowadays, business cards are used as both social and trade cards. Contact details come in a number of forms, and the card would normally contain other information (such as job title). Despite the numerous forms of social media, the business card still has a significant part to play, not only in providing essential contact details, but also in expressing a sense of identity.
As each card expresses a part of the identity of the owner, it should be treated with the respect that you would afford to any individual. Business cards should always have your name, and contact details. These should be a private format (i.e. email and telephone number) rather than a public format (i.e. twitter or other social media) unless this is appropriate to your business. They should also have your organisation, and your position within that organisation.
If you have personal business cards as well as company business cards, these should reflect you and should be suitable to the use that you would put them. Contact details are essential, and something to individualise your card would be beneficial, as this helps people to remember who you are when they are looking through a stack of newly received cards.
Business card etiquette in the UK is quite relaxed, but there are a few simple tips to make you look professional and gentlemanly at all times.
- Have your business cards in a business card holder. Make it interesting in itself, so that it can become a talking point. Place your business cards at the front, and those you receive at the back, so that you never misplace another person’s card.
- In the UK it might be a good idea to write a little note to yourself about the person whose card it is, and what you talked about, so that you can more easily jog your memory about that person when you come to clear out your business card holder, and review your cards.
- Always carry your cards. You never know when you will need one, so make sure you have them on you. There is never an excuse for not having a card with you.
Other cultures have much stricter business card etiquette, with China and Japan being the most complex. For the same of ease, I will talk mostly about Japan here, as following these steps will not cause offence in China, but the other way would leave the gentleman open to inadvertent rudeness.
- Ensure that you have your details translated into the local language or dialect. For titles, it might be more useful to transliterate the English, rather than trying to find a direct translation for a title that may not exist in the country you are visiting. For Japanese people, it is also important to give an idea of where your job is within the organisation structure, so that they feel that they are giving you the proper respect.
- As your status in Japan is particularly tied to the organisation you work for, and your level within that organisation, any other details that give about your organisation (largest in the country, biggest, oldest etc. are very helpful as this can help the recipient to have an idea about your organisation.
- When presenting your card, you should use both hands, holding it in the top corners, so that you are not covering any of the information. You should present the text of the card to make it easy for the recipient to read (i.e. the right way round, and if there are 2 languages on the card, then the correct language facing up).
- When swapping business cards between two people of different statuses, try to contrive a way that the card of the person of lower status is underneath that of the person of higher status.
- When receiving a card, you should take it with two hands, ensuring that you do not cover any of the text, and that you take time to study the card. If you are in a meeting, then referring back to the card would be considered very rude, so make sure that you have memorised the details sufficiently to see you through. Make sure that you also have a good idea of the title, status and the organisation that the person works for, as these details will give you the clues about their status.
- You should not write on a card (defacing it), bend a card or carry them loosely. You should not let a card become worn or warm, as these are also signs of disrespect. Never put a card in your back pocket either.
- If in a meeting, place the card on top of your business card holder on the table. If you receive more than one card in the course of the meeting, rank the cards in order of status, with the highest status card on the card holder, and the others cascading down from there. Make sure you collect all cards from the table and carefully place them into your card-holder as you leave the meeting. Leaving a card on the table would signify that you consider the person to be unworthy of attention.