12 - Jun - 2019
[Biz Tip] Business card is the face of social identity
This is a guest post by Seon Lee who currently resides in Berlin, Germany after working in impact investing sector in Seoul, Korea. She loves helping those who visit Korea as much as visiting different countries herself.  


As I illustrated in the previous posting (click), addressing shows how hierarchical Korean business world is. So you would not be surprised that seniority matters so much in that it rules the way Koreans greet and introduce themselves, i.e. business card exchanges and handshaking. It is a common sense that JUNIORs must first offer their business cards. SENIORs offer their hands first.

When it is not clear who the senior is in case of a first meeting, Koreans assume the elderly are in charge, rooted in Confucian culture which values the seniority based on ages. This assumption sometimes induces awkward happenings though. A friend of mine once told me about a first meeting with an IT startup. When two men, seemingly one in 30s and the other in 40s, appeared in the meeting room, it was in a way instinctive to express heartfelt welcome with a deep bow to the latter. Turned out, the young man was the CEO.

In order to avoid such embarrassing moments, it is important to identify the ranks of seniority in the room at first. How do you do that in Korea? By checking business cards. This is why Koreans make sure to exchange their business cards with every single person in meeting. Consequently, business card is a must-have item. It’s a good idea to pack more than enough business cards when you prepare for a business trip to Korea.

Moreover, the cards are often regarded as the face of one’s social identity on a piece of paper. The common sensical manners to handle a business card is derived from this idea which may include but not limited to: always on your feet for exchanging, placing the card on the table or your diary, never put it away or take note on it in front of the person. 

Korean culture-sensitive details would be: if you’re junior in terms of age, rank, or business relations, present yours lower than that of your counterpart with two hands. A slight bow will be a nice gesture to express your respect. At this point, make sure to present your card towards the person you hand it over. Koreans would highly appreciate it if you have Korean name and rank written on the card, but it is optional. 

Since keeping track of all the business cards is difficult, business card management applications have been getting popular for the last few years. The widely used app is called Remember, with its key feature to connect and update a person’s business card when his/ her rank, team or company changes. In case you don’t have enough cards left for the business trip, politely ask your counterpart to take a picture of your card to save it on the app. After all, we live in the digital world where a smartphone has everything we need.

To wrap up the business cards culture in Korea, just remember:

  • Pack more than enough business cards for a business trip;
  • Juniors offer cards first while seniors offer hands first;
  • Present business cards towards the receiver with two hands (with a slight bow before or after the exchange would be a nice gesture);
  • Juniors put their cards lower than those of the counterparts when exchanging;
  • It’s impolite to write on the business card or put it away in a wallet or a pocket in front of the person, handle with respect as it is the extended social identity.

Once you have a smooth start, it is important to build a strong lasting relationship with the business partners. In Korea, business meetings often do not end in the meeting room. Sharing a meal or drinks is quite important as it is a good way to understand each other in a relatively casual setting. I’d like to share a few points to keep in mind over the dinner table in the next post.