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A routine courtesy can reveal much about a culture.

Many academics pride themselves on not having business cards. The very name of the small, stiff piece of paperboard suggests that it is meant to be used in a sector of society to which not all professors aspire and with whose manners they do not always feel comfortable.

If a faculty member does have business cards, perhaps because his or her institution has provided them, they might seldom be carried and less frequently distributed. On many an occasion I have watched a new acquaintance fumble through a wallet or purse looking for a business card, finally to unearth one that is soiled, bent, dog-eared, and out of date.

Before surrendering it, the reluctant offerer may cross out an outdated telephone number, update an office location, or edit an e-mail address. Such handwritten corrections and addenda make the card look anything but businesslike.

Yet among scholars who travel frequently, up-to-date bi- or even multilingual business cards are now commonplace. A typical bilingual card would have English on one side and, on the other, the same information translated or transliterated into an appropriate foreign language.

There are cultures in which the exchange of business cards among academics is expected and even ritualized, and one of them is Japan. To visit that country without a good supply of correctly printed bilingual cards is to risk feeling out of place, not to mention appearing to be unprofessional.

Japanese professors and engineers invariably carry business cards and distribute them freely and ritualistically at meetings and social gatherings. The visiting American who does not have the proper cards to offer in return creates an awkward cultural imbalance in the relationship and risks showing disrespect for his or her hosts.

The Japanese are very courteous in their everyday interactions. When I rode the bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka, I was struck by the way the conductor entered and left the car. He bowed before entering and, upon exiting, turned to face the passengers before bowing again.
In similar fashion, when a Japanese professional presents a business card to an American guest, it is held with the thumb and index fingers of both hands, English side up and oriented so that the receiver can read it without having to rotate it. The informed guest receives the card with the same grip.

No matter how many hands are occupied, the guest should, of course, reciprocate by offering his or her own card in a similar fashion but with the Japanese side up. Even if the recipient is known to be conversant in both Japanese and English, it is a sign of cultural respect to present the card with the recipient’s home language uppermost.

In Japan, a business card is not just received and pocketed. It is held, studied, and often commented upon.

In Japan, a business card is not just to be taken and placed immediately in one’s pocket, as so many Americans usually do. Rather, it is held for a respectful time, studied, and often commented upon. It is not considered polite to treat an individual’s card as just another one among many.

When a group exchanging cards finally sits down at a conference or restaurant table, the collected cards are often arrayed like a seating chart beside a notebook or above a dinner plate. This not only shows continued interest in those whose cards have been presented but also serves as a ready reminder of who is sitting around the table.

No matter how unfamiliar, when properly understood professionally and culturally, foreign customs do make sense. Sometimes, as with business cards in Japan, they also provide important insights into another civilization.

Henry Petroski, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, carried a supply of bilingual business cards on a recent trip to Japan.




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