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Business Card Etiquette

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I recently went to my second South by Southwest Interactive (SxSW or SxSWi) in Austin, TX. If you’re not familiar with the conference, it is a 5-day internet and technology subsection of the greater SXSW conference which also has Music and Film components.

SxSWi has a long history of being a great place for cutting-edge technology makers and creators to mingle and share ideas. I personally saw, felt, and benefited from this great tradition. However, people who have been attending the conference for more than 3 years say that it has changed substantially as its influence has been recognized, and there are continually growing populations of the ‘business-y’ (read ‘douchebag’) hangers-on: marketers, salespeople, and those I think of as ‘traders in idea derivatives’. (Luckily, for my part, I was able to find a tribe of people who are actually creative and engaged in what they do, so I was able to minimize my exposure to the unsavory, financially-motivated elements.)

But not fully. There are several blog posts I’m sure I could write about the interactions between ‘the Makers’ and ‘the Sellers’, but one aspect of our differences really calls out to me for comment: business cards.

Some people can be really, really intense about business cards. (Check out this guy.) In some business cultures, not treating the business card exchange with the proper respect can end up costing you potential partners.

My impression is that at SxSW, people think of business card dispensing as a quantity-over-quality proposition. Some members (with whom I am friends) of the “How Not to Be a Douchebag at SXSW” panel (2010, 2011) panel even give advanced warnings that there are people who approach business-card delivery in this manner.

The whole business card thing is so ripe for mockery that @scottyiseri and I created a fake ‘Angel Investment’ firm, just so we could give out the fake business cards you see at the top of the post. (I ended up dispensing these cards out to friends, so they could in turn use them as a way to avoid giving their actual information to someone who was being egregiously douche-y.)

But it wasn’t the blatant card-distributors that got to me, it was the nuanced ones. After one session, I ended up with a card from a recruiter from North Carolina, and another from a small-business efficiency consultant from New Jersey. These cards were handed to me while I was having actual, pertinent conversation about the session with the card-givers. Twenty minutes later in my hotel room I was tearing the cards up and throwing them away. I had zero need for these cards.

On the plane ride home I got to thinking about those cards. I realized that every single unwanted card that ended up in my possession was a symbol of laziness: my laziness in protecting my integrity. (And I’m pretty into my integrity.) If I have absolutely no interest in your business card, and have no intent of ever trying to contact you ever again, why accept the business card? (You may say ‘politeness’, but I don’t buy it, because any ‘good’ marketer will politely bully their way into your wallet if you give them the chance.)

Going forward I have a new resolution. I will no longer passively accept business cards, I will either actively accept (less likely) or actively reject (more likely) any business card that is offered to me.

Will you join me? (Why not?)