In the 1980’s hit satire on yuppie culture, American Psycho, a group of men in a conference room overlooking Manhattan share business cards. In a game of bizaare top trumps, the cards are unsheathed from shiny holders to reveal increasingly elaborately curated cards. Upon seeing the gloriously embossed card of a business rival, the films antagonist falls into sweat, ostensibly bested by his foe. Here, the business cards act as weapons in a duel, the eventual victor holding the mantle of virility. Here the font, colours and design of the card are broken down with perverse hilarity as the antagonist falls deeper into status-induced anxiety.
Away from the satirical farce of this scene, in real life, the business card holds similar power. They act as testimonies of promotions, new roles and professional importance and owners are often judged on them. In many ways they have become far removed from their initial role as tokens of exchanging information between parties. With the emergence of the novel coronavirus, they have also taken on an additional perilous dimension. Scientists now allege that the virus can live on cardboard surfaces for up to 24 hours and metal/plastic surfaces for 72 hours. As we hurtle towards a touchless, contactless future, the practice of exchanging business cards may have received its final death toll.
In truth, it has been a long and protracted death. In the first instance, sustainability advocates have long warned of the detriment to the environment cause by these mas produced items. The fact that many are encased in plastic, make them difficult to recycle and many end up clogging desk drawers and then becoming landfill. In the second instance, the efficiency of the practice has been challenged. Any typos or changes to the card itself will require a secondary print run. While there is something symbolic about receiving a new business card following a promotion, for most people waiting for physical cards are a tedious and wasteful process. Indeed, once the card is passed to a recipient, they or (a long-suffering assistant) will extract the data enshrined within and then presumably discard the item. This analogue process of entering addresses and phone numbers is both time consuming and deeply inefficient. To combat both, new technology-based systems for exchanging information have been developed. Using RFID, NFC, Bluetooth, application services and/or QR codes, users are now easily able to share information without need for physical business cards. The world of digital business cards is booming with several players crowding the market.
Yet, despite the emergence of these technologies in alignment with the digital age, the practice has endured – notably in certain parts of the world. In Japan the business card is called a meishi and the physical exchange is a ceremonial ritual in itself. Here the way the card is stored (in a smart leather case where they will not become warm or worn, both of which are considered a sign of disrespect or thoughtlessness), held (at the top two corners, face up and turned so that it can be read by the person receiving the meishi, who takes it by the bottom two corners using both hands), presented (one is expected to read the card over, noting the person’s name and rank) and received (thank the other person, saying “choudai itashimasu” (“I accept your name card”) or “choudai shimasu”, and then bow) is all important; Each step personifies the epithets of social etiquette and hierarchy. Here it is also regarded as a telling indicator of business prowess, the idea being that the way the recipient treats a business card embodies the way they will treat the presenter in business. It can also be a telling indicator of the recipient In Japan, where the business card means more than just exchanging information, it is more likely to be mourned. Yet, the change there has already begin which the government attempting to promote an online meishi system with face to face cards slowly phased out.
For all talk of demise, its passing from the world will not go without note. The business card world is big business itself; from companies selling bespoke, monogrammed holders to store them, to designers who can help bring the small rectangular square to life with the owners personality, business cards are no longer simply just convenient ways of exchanging information. There are people who have made hobbies of collecting notable cards and in the dating world, prospective suitors have also used these to showcase their personalities and information without the commitment that comes with digital exchange.
However, like the handshake, the risk it poses through spreading the virus overshadows its perks. And perhaps this is not an entirely bad thing. Aside from sustainability question and emergence of more convenient digital alternatives, like the handshake, the business card too exhibits the values of a bygone business world. Where people were once judged on the strength of their handshakes, so too, like in American Psycho, the business card can embody the intense world of business competition and sometimes toxic hyper-masculinity. As we are forced to reconcile the world we live in with this cruel illness, perhaps the future holds new practices, rituals and customs. The demise of the business card has been a long time coming, perhaps it is time to finally let the practice rest in eternal peace.