In Japanese business, formal introductions mark the transition from stranger to potential business partner. First meetings are so special for the Japanese that the greeting, “Hajimemashite,” which literally means, “It is the first time,” is only used on this occasion.” There is only one time to say “Hajimemashite.” Once done, it cannot be done over. There is no “reset” button. It is, as the Japanese say, “Ichi-go ichi-e,” (one chance in a lifetime). The formal exchange of business cards gives tangible expression to this important occasion.
An internet search will reveal many websites that teach the basics of exchanging business cards and making self-introductions. Illustrated step-by-step instructions are readily available and easy to follow. I am sure all of our readers are familiar with them as well: have your business cards in a separate card holder to keep them clean, offer your card with two hands so that the person you are meeting can read the print, and receive and handle their card with care. With a bit of practice, everyone can master this custom.
However, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. It is easy to think that once we have passed the hurdle of the “business card thing,” we can get down to business as usual. The “business card thing” is so different from the more casual way introductions are handled at home that we sometimes develop full confidence that we have mastered Japanese business culture. Regrettably, the “business card thing” takes the place of learning the deeper set of Japanese values underlying business card exchange.
This is not to minimize the importance of this custom. The Japanese certainly do take a first impression of Westerners from the way they handle the business card exchange. What clues are they looking for? What gives a favorable impression? What behavior might impress Westerners but create a bad impression on the Japanese? What am I saying about myself?
I respect the things that are important to you and I am taking the time to handle things properly
By getting out of your “comfort zone” and learning a new way to introduce yourself, you show that you are willing to learn new ways, and that you have the ability and discipline to learn the process. You try to do the right thing at the right time. You are taking the time to handle things properly, not just jumping right into the meeting. If your card also has your name in katakana, you give the Japanese the opportunity to pronounce your name correctly, the first time and every time.
My status and my appearance are in alignment
Dressing appropriately for the occasion shows respect for the interaction. What will your Japanese counterpart be wearing? Wear something approximately the same. Perhaps you are asking yourself, “How can I stand out?” The Japanese who you meet might be asking themselves, “How will he or she fit in?” For first meetings, there is no such thing as “casual Friday.” It is usually better to dress too formally than be underdressed. Your clothing should also reflect your status. Do not let your appearance contradict the title on your business card. This is the occasion to bring out your “dress for success” outfits. Female managers and everyone in positions of authority should wear suits with jackets, and be better dressed than their subordinates. The Japanese are more status conscious than Americans, and would be very embarrassed to mistake you for the coffee lady or the person handling photocopies.
I am the face of my company
Your business card helps the Japanese situate you in their mind map. It gives your company name, your name, and title. The Japanese will observe the way you handle your cards. Are they kept in a nice holder, or are they stuffed in your wallet? Do you handle them with care, or toss them around? Did you forget to bring them with you? The Japanese will come to a conclusion about your pride in and respect for the “face” or reputation of your company. The way you handle your cards is especially critical if you work at a local branch company and you are meeting with representatives from your head office!
I will treat you and your company properly
How do you handle their card? Do you study it briefly, and put it in your case? Or do you simply stuff it in your wallet and put your wallet in your back pocket? Do you bend it or fiddle with it during the meeting?
I have done my homework
Prior to the meeting, do some research to get at least some basic information about the Japanese company as a whole, not just the particular area you are interested in. You should be able to ask pertinent questions about their company. Be familiar with recent happenings (positive of course!) in their company, and mention them in conversation. If your company has had previous (again, positive!) dealings with the Japanese company, you should definitely bring this up. Even though you and the Japanese person you are meeting for the first time are two individuals looking ahead to a new initiative, it is important to stress past relationships between organizations.
In addition, be prepared to answer questions about your company in general, not just your particular division. Do not let your new business partner be the one telling you about your company’s latest accomplishments!
I am willing to learn from you
Recently, I was talking to some Japanese managers who were recruiting new US employees. They were surprised that the candidates that they interviewed seemed focused on talking up their credentials. The candidates tried hard to impress the Japanese about how much they knew about Japanese manufacturing systems. The Japanese, on the other hand, expected candidates to express an interest in learning about their company and its manufacturing systems. The candidates were only doing what was common sense—blowing their own horns. After all, if we don’t sell ourselves to our prospective employers, we won’t get the job, right? What we think of as common sense, our 60-second “elevator speech,” in which we talk up our credentials, track record, and special abilities, seems boastful and arrogant to the Japanese. It is better to be humble about one’s accomplishments. Express an interest in the Japanese person’s experience, and in their company. It is better to draw them out than to lead with the hard sell.
We only get the chance to say “Hajimemashite” one time. Knowledge and mastery of “the business card thing” is a good way to create a good impression, but only if it is backed up by sincere respect and willingness to bridge the culture gap.
This article originally appeared in Japan Close-Up magazine.
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