In Korea, put cards on table


Digital contact information takes second place

June 04, 2008|By HANAH CHO

SEOUL, South Korea - Jeffrey Jones knows all too well the hazards of committing a misstep in business card etiquette in Korea's corporate world.

Jones, a longtime Seoul resident and attorney with the Asian country's largest law firm, Kim & Chang, recalls one negotiation that went sour because an American official began folding up the card of a Korean counterpart on the other side of the table.

The offense? A business or name card was not treated with respect in a corporate culture where it's largely viewed as an extension of a person.

"Things deteriorated from there," Jones says, only half-kidding. "That negotiation ended."

Despite the prevalence of digital contact information worldwide, Jones' story illustrates the vital role name cards still play in doing business here.

Embracing new gadgets and technology is a point of pride in Korea - Seoul is the world's most wired city - but whipping out a cell phone or PDA to input names, phone numbers and other information is not as widespread as the practice of exchanging business cards.

It's a trend I saw firsthand during a trip there in April, where I was among a group of U.S. journalists on a cultural exchange program. We were told to arrive with a minimum of 150 business cards, an amount that had seemed exorbitant to me. Let me give you an idea of how infrequently I give out my business card, even as a journalist who often meets new people: I have yet to finish a box of cards in the five years I've been here. In fact, one colleague had to have them made before leaving for the trip.

Korea is not alone. In Japan, too, there's formality associated with exchanging business cards, or meishi, as they're called there.

Other Asian countries also put a premium on using business cards, says Jeanette S. Martin, associate professor of management at the University of Mississippi and co-author of Global Business Etiquette, which has a section covering business-card exchanges. In contrast, "we do it very casually," Martin says of the practice in the U.S.

With the popularity of business and social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook, all you need is an e-mail address these days to establish and build relationships - something that's widely embraced by corporate America. Many people also rely on BlackBerrys and other digital address books to store names and contact information for their clients, colleagues and competitors.

"In the U.S., we don't have any protocols around distribution of cards other than throwing it at people," says Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette consultant.

Pachter notes that she doesn't get asked much for her card, though it's crucial to have them as part of doing business anywhere. "In other cultures, it's more than that. It's part of their official greeting in Japan, and how you present the card tells a lot about you."

Part of the reason exchanging business cards is important in Asia is the group-oriented and hierarchical structure that exists there, Martin says.

Korean corporate tradition calls for titles to be standardized across various industries, so workers use business cards to decipher rank, responsibility and even pay. Koreans generally like to do business with people of the same rank.

Such information also can tell people whether to use formal titles such as chairman or president.

These titles are common in addressing senior colleagues and executives, says Raymond Burghardt, a former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul in the early 1990s.

Burghardt, who also held embassy posts across Asia, including serving as ambassador to Vietnam, says many foreigners have become more aware of the practice and that "they should know it and prepare for it."

More college students are buying business cards, too. Mori Tomoomi, 28, a mass communications student from Japan who is working toward a doctoral degree at Yonsei University, one of the top schools in Korea, says it's crucial to have name cards - especially as students start looking for a job.

Besides understanding why the practice persists, it also helps to know the etiquette in handing out business cards. The U.S. Commercial Service, a government agency that helps American companies find business partners abroad, offers some insight.

"Business persons should always have their [preferably bilingual] business cards ready and should treat the exchange of a Korean counterpart's card with respect," the commercial service says in its "Doing Business in Korea" explainer.

Here are few things I observed: Using both hands to hand out and receive cards is a sign of respect. So is bowing a little when receiving them.

I also saw a number of Korean politicians and business officials place all the name cards he or she received on the table, which is viewed as a thoughtful gesture. But writing on the card is a no-no.

By the end of our two-week visit, I had come to enjoy the ritual. Not only did I give out countless cards, but I also had amassed quite a collection.

The dilemma now is do I convert the cards into digital information or stuff them into my dusty Rolodex?

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