Three Hacks for Effective Korean Business Card Exchanges: Give and Take the Key Information

By KBC Creator Steven S. Bammel

From the Korea Business Advisor column in the February 2012 issue of Seoul Magazine.

2012010174646Every business introduction in Korea involves a business card exchange. I won’t belabor the point here, but when doing business in Korea, you’re going to look silly if you don’t carry business cards. This is because business cards contain information that’s important in building a subsequent relationship and, as explained in a previous Korea Business Advisor article, the sharing of a business card also means “permission to contact”.

Focus on these three hacks to make the most of your business introductions in Korea.

1. Get the Exchange Right

In Korea, business cards are given and received with the right hand (or with both hands if you really want to show respect), and the exchange is generally followed by a handshake. This process is a ceremony of sorts that signals the official beginning of a business relationship. In fact, even if you’ve been around someone for awhile, if you haven’t yet been through the business card trading ritual, you can’t consider yourself properly introduced.

Keep in mind that giving your card to someone a second time indicates you don’t remember having met them the first time and that this is a big-time faux pas. This issue is trickier than it sounds since, to non-Koreans, Korean names and faces can be hard to place firmly into memory. I’ve found myself accidentally giving my business card to people that I should have remembered meeting before but didn’t. A couple times when this happened and the other person was well on their way to being offended, I was able to recover by quickly pointing out that I was only giving them the card this time because it had been updated recently (which thankfully, is a legitimate excuse).

2. Nail Down the Name

Korean first and last names are reversed from the Western order. But since Koreans sometimes (but not always!) switch the sequence of their monikers in English to help foreigners, you cannot depend on a magic formula for knowing which name is the family name and which is the given name.

Other than the easy and most common family names like Kim, Lee and Park, it’s not always straightforward for a newbie to know which name is which and to call someone by the wrong name would be the same as a Korean referring to you as “President John” or “Mr. Bob” (something that happens surprisingly often in Korea, I might add).

Thus, when in doubt, ask… Not just that, this is the easiest question you can start with to get the small talk going, and ensure’s you pronounce the other person’s name correctly also.

3. Pinpoint the Job Position

Arguably more important than getting the name right is understanding the other person’s job position, since this is fundamental to getting lots of other stuff right in your business interactions. Indeed, the primary reason business cards are so essential in Korean business is that they communicate the position of each person within organizational and social hierarchy. Though rank in Korea can be based on many things, in business it starts with job position, and that’s what you get from a business card.

Make sure that every business card exchange goes off without a hitch by keeping these three hacks in mind every time you meet a Korean on business for the first time.

For additional information on the following related topics and more, click here to visit the a dedicated page on Steven’s weblog:

  • Crash Course on Korea Business Success Strategies (Lessons #1, #2 and #3 go into much greater detail about this month’s column topic.)
  • Korea Business Central discussion and free download of my ebook, The Definitive Guide to Business Cards in Korea
  • “Three Steps to Business Network Building in Korea” in Korea Business Advisor in the August 2011 Issue of Seoul Magazine (Discusses how the sharing of a business card means “permission to contact”.)
  • Topic Central Page on Korea Business Central: Korean Business Savvy
  • Executive Report: “Succeed in Korean Business by Understanding Korean Company Hierarchy”