This simple transaction still has the potential to be painfully embarrassing if you get it wrong.

But Walter Faulstroh, co-founder of HUM Nutrition, says he has finally managed to fine-tune the art of the business card exchange after many years living in Paris, London and now Los Angeles. This has meant tailoring his approach carefully to where he is and who he’s meeting.

If you pull out a business card, they look at you like you’re from a different [era]

In Europe, he says, the card is often still formally presented — as it always has been — upon introduction, then carefully tucked away. But on the US West Coast, things are different. As part of the startup crowd, Faulstroh typically waits for his counterpart to do a formal introduction, but if there isn’t one he skips handing over his card.

A minefield

“It’s become quite complex,” he says. It’s so extreme that at some tech conferences, “if you pull out a business card, they look at you like you’re from a different [era].” Instead, he quickly follows up with new contacts via LinkedIn or another social media platform to cement the connection.

The business card exchange itself is a ritual

So if we’ve all become such ‘digital natives’, why is it still relevant to hand over a piece of card? More than just an exchange of details, business cards help with that crucial positive first impression, act as an ice breaker, grab someone’s attention and even boost your credibility, say experts.

A global guide

Doing business in parts of Asia, Latin America and even Southern Europe often still means adopting a traditional approach. “The business card exchange itself is a ritual,” even if can seem redundant in the age of social media, says Sebastian Reiche, an assistant professor at IESE Business School in Barcelona. “We are still printing business cards, but you really don’t need them.”

In mainland China, American Michael Michelini, a Shenzhen-based marketer, learned to hand over his card with both hands with the words facing towards the other person. He also makes sure to glance at any cards he receives and to put them anywhere but his back pocket, which is a big no-no. He’s now careful to glance at the details (it signifies respect) after a business card is handed to him.

Even after 10 years in China, “I’m still not as good at paying attention,” he says. “It distracts me usually.” The entire ritual is meant to honour the person giving the card and is practiced in some form or another throughout most of Asia.

In countries where traditional hierarchical rules apply, the card serves as a reminder of status

In countries where traditional business rules apply, the card still serves as a reminder of status, says IESE’s Reiche. “In a culture where hierarchy is important, the person wants to [see the card] to prepare how to interact with you and how to address you,” he says.

Nicole Dyer Griffith, an international protocol consultant, in Trinidad, advises clients overseas to follow the lead of the most senior person in the group. For example, some cultures may save the business card exchange until the end of the meeting, elsewhere introductions are made with a business card in hand. 

Amazing as it may sound to people doing business in the US or UK, disregarding this practice can potentially sour an entire business exchange, she adds. “It’s important to try to [follow etiquette] as best as possible.”

Even taste in design varies significantly worldwide, according to Chad Jennings, chief product officer at Moo, a UK-based printer and designer of business cards. Unlike in the UK and across Europe, thinner — not thicker — paper stock is a mark of luxury in Japan and China, he says. In China, cards tend to be filled with text, while Swiss and German cards are more sparse, pointing out only the most essential details without bragging about career achievements. In the UK, gold foil text is the most popular because it provides a more luxurious look, he adds.

The future

So the business card’s not dead yet. In fact it’s getting a makeover.

Last year, Moo launched its NFC-enabled business cards, which stands for near-field communication. These cards use so-called smart paper to store data to be scanned by a smartphone or another electronic device. While it’s still just a tiny fraction of Moo’s sales, Jennings says the idea is slowly starting to take hold. “People are using it in really unique ways,” he says. “Some associate [the business card] with a Spotify playlist.”

People are using it in really unique ways

In March, the company also launched Monogram by Moo, an app that serves as a digital business card of sorts that allows users to share their portfolio on their smartphone or send it along electronically, which can be shown “to tell their story” in addition to a traditional card. “You can pull it up and hand it over to the person,” he says.

Michelini says that his business cards now include a WeChat QR code on the back to allow for another user of the China-based social media platform to scan it straight away and connect online. Often, in lieu of business cards, he simply generates a QR code via smartphone, which is then scanned by a business associate, he adds. The practice — popular with his Chinese associates — is preferable to a more traditional card, because it automatically ensures an online connection, he adds.

But “not everyone is on the same level technologically,” says Dyer Griffith.  For most industries, the business card exchange can feel as necessary as a handshake. “It still adds that personal touch,” she says.

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