The return to in-person networking events and conferences has been exhilarating. After many months of flats and garden clogs, my feet are sore from wearing high heels again. But this is a small price to pay for the pleasure of networking in new and familiar business circles. Yet, the more events I attend the more I notice slight changes in the way people interact.
For one, the etiquette of business cards has been forgotten or neglected. Surely, we didn’t need printed cards when we lived on Zoom. But back in the real world they can still be helpful to establish rapport and help the other person remember you.
In the last two weeks, I’ve attended an average of three networking events a week. At each of these, I was happy to flash the pricey MOO cards I purchased when I started my executive speaker consulting practice in mid-2019. That is, until I realized that I was receiving very few in return, not because I lack the ability to make small talk and network a room full of strangers. Something else was going on.
“I ran out a few months ago and haven’t gotten around to restocking,” said a highly placed corporate communications executive at a luncheon last week after I closed a pleasant chat by handing him my card.
A promising new business conversation at a chamber of commerce cocktail ended with the investment banker handing me his last card creased and roughened after two years in the deep folds of his wallet.
A speaker at a conference told me that she stopped using business cards altogether after learning that some seven million trees are cut down each year to produce them.
I haven’t fact checked that one, but it does make sense that paper business cards are bad for the planet. Besides, the vast majority are thrown out within a week. And if you change jobs, you’ll have to toss the old cards and print new ones. Dropping a business card on every interaction has been standard practice in my world of corporate communications and media. A printed card makes it easier to exchange the necessary details and to punctuate a good first impression with a sleek, easy-to-read card designed to help the person remember me, what I do and act on our conversation.
In some Asian countries, the exchange of business cards is almost ceremonial. It’s a valued ritual that sets the tone for a meeting and establishes hierarchy and social status.
Even in the United States, it’s good manners to reciprocate a card. But it wasn’t working that way for me. I was beginning to think that I was out of touch until a photographer friend told me about digital wallet cards that use QR codes and near-field communication (NFC) technology.
“Physical business cards are old fashioned. They are quickly forgotten or lost,” my friend said. “And you still have to enter the information manually into your database for the contact to be worth anything.“
With that she took out a plastic card with a QR code that when scanned uploaded her customized contact information, links to her photo galleries and social accounts. The data went straight to my phone and generated an email thanking me for connecting with her. I was impressed.
The decline of the paper business card has paved the way for an array of digital versions that allow you to send your personalized details through NFC, text, email, airdrop or QR code to any Android or iPhone. A potential client or associate doesn’t need the same app to accept your information.
The beauty of digital cards is that you can share social handles and assorted other information that you might not display on a printed card. The downside is that unless the other person uses the same technology, your transfer is one-way. Of course, they could use a different method to volley back their details from a mobile device. But by now, it’s starting to take a lot of time to go tit-for-tat with a digital transfer. In contrast, it takes but a second to whip out the paper card you have strategically placed in your right-side jacket pocket.
Which brings me back to the noble printed format. Maybe the better approach to business card etiquette is to use both traditional and modern methods. Human interactions are everything, and this holds true yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Being able to meet, communicate and connect with new people is how we grow our personal and professional relationships. So, let’s look at how to combine the old and the new to build those prized connections.
Here are five rules of modern networking:
1. Face-to-face conversations are becoming a lost art. Go back to the basics: maintain good eye contact and state your name as you offer a firm handshake. The basics include the fundamentals of effective public speaking.
2. Ask the person’s name if not offered right away and say it a few times during the conversation, including the “good talking with you, Rosemary” closing.
3. Be interested not just be interesting. Listen carefully and make it about them more than about you. Watch the “you/I” ratio; that is, say “you” more often than “I.”
4. Pose open-ended questions that allow the respondent to elaborate instead of giving a static “yes” or “no” answer. For example: “Do you oversee a remote team?” may lead to a simple yes/no. But “How have you adapted to managing remote workers?” opens the door to a deeper discussion.
5. Be aware of generational differences. Offer a conventional business card first to someone who appears older than you before you go the digital route.
Exchanging cards still represents good business etiquette and professionalism. A well-designed card reflects pride in what you do and forms a favorable first impression. However, the novelty of a digital card is a great conversation starter and may strengthen your ties with that person long after your first meeting. Sharing knowledge is a powerful bonding tool. As for my decision to restock my printed cards or invest in a digital version, I’m inclined to order a beautiful new card, printed on recycled card stock this time.