Making a mark

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2012, 12:00am


I was told when I first moved to Asia that, out here, business cards are different; they are almost holy. When exchanging them, you hold the top corners ever so precisely. You should nod and bow slightly while inching your card slowly towards the recipient, like penguins exchanging an egg rather than two adults exchanging e-mail addresses.

It's not just the way they are presented that's unique. Over the years, I've seen them all - neon pink, scented, cryptic ones with just a name, as though they ought to belong to Elton John, ones with the person's entire resume printed on them, and ones shaped like the product they're selling (from cupcakes and sunglasses to toilets). But, to be honest, if I never saw a business card again, I'd be pretty happy.

At a recent meeting, 10 minutes after I gave this guy my business card, he proceeded to use it as a coaster. For the entire meeting, I sat staring at my card, gawking in disbelief as the condensation of his iced water ruined my card. The worst part was that, prior to putting down his drink, he flipped through the stack of business cards he had collected from everyone in the room, taking time to consider each one before choosing my card to be his napkin. Needless to say, I didn't hear a single word at that meeting. Several times I had to restrain myself from interrupting and shouting: 'Why me? Why my card?'

After I got home and calmed down, I got to thinking. Was it really that bad? After all, I, too, have tossed business cards in the bin. Hundreds of them, in fact. Why should I hang on to these annoying little pieces of paper when there's Google, Facebook and Linkedin? In this hi-tech day and age, the last thing I want on my desk is a Rolodex.

Once, years ago at a conference, I gave my card to a woman who took one look at it and gave it back to me. 'No need,' she said. My face turned bright red. 'What do you mean, 'no need'?' I wanted to say. 'How do you know you won't need it? Take it! You might need it!'

Looking back, I think she was onto something. The fact is that most business cards simply go from pocket to rubbish bin. And if there's someone we really want to connect with, we will find a way to do so - card or no card.

Sadly, though, I doubt business cards will ever vanish, at least not in Asia. We're just too obsessed with their main function - providing instant employment details. Without them, how else would we be able to immediately extrapolate other details, like roughly how much money the person makes, where the person lives and their social circle?

Business cards allow us to shout how important we are without uttering a single word. Imagine how differently a meeting would go if people had to say: 'Hi. I'm Mike. I'm the head of Morgan Stanley. No, really, I am!'

Perhaps, though, that's our problem. Perhaps we should find other ways to make an impression. Perhaps if I had done a better job of contributing to the meeting, instead of just staring at a glass of iced water with my mouth hanging open, that guy would not have used my card as his coaster.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.