Friday, March 16, 2007

What's on the Cards

To the unrefined and under-bred, the visiting card is but a trifling bit of paper; but to the cultured disciple of social law, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. Its texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of its leaving combine to place the stranger, whose name it bears, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude..."
- `Our Deportment', 1881.

The cards of unmarried and married men should be small [about 1.25" by 3"]. For married persons a medium size is in better taste than a large card. The engraving in simple writing is preferred, and without flourishes. Printed letters, large or small, are very commonplace, no matter what the type may be. The `Mr' before the name should be dispensed with by young men.
- `Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture', 1882

They come in all shapes and sizes, but most of them are variations of 9 cm x 3.5 cm or thereabouts. Some are twice or even thrice as large, but they too fold neatly into these dimensions.

At business meetings and formal parties, after breaking the ice if not to break the ice, executives swap their visiting cards. Would you believe that the 32 sq cm visiting card nestling in your wallet is capable of making a fashion statement, of spreading a corporate image?

Look at the variety: some are bilingual, some have mug-shots printed on them, some are in the form of CDs, some are made on palmyra leaf, some have both sides printed, and some have just the name of the owner.

People carry cards that suit their deportment. Take, for instance, Sudipto Bose, a Calcutta businessman who runs two small-scale units, a financial services company and a communications centre, and is the secretary of the Automobile Association of India. When you hand over your visiting card to him, Bose fishes into his wallet and gives you the card that he thinks describes him best and in a mutually useful manner.

At the other end of the spectrum is the former chief of an airline company. This man, with infinite self-importance, wants people to take the arduous path of seeking him out. That brings us to the office etiquette - it is the person in the subordinate position (read `seeker of favour') who offers his card. The `superior' never offers his card - "You may collect it from my secretary" - that is, if he has not taken umbrage at your request!

Irrespective of their position in the company, employees of most of the modern corporates such as Pepsi, AT&T, Boeing and Novartis have visiting cards that are identical in style, font and colour - only the employee-specific details vary. (A far cry from that of many public sector banks where the cards of no two colleagues match!) In fact, it is a requirement in most modern corporates that the stated technical specifications are met. For instance, the visiting card flaunted by George Jacob, owner of Purackal Motors, the Kottayam Dealer of Hero Honda, is identical to that of Brij Mohan Munjal, chairman of the company that makes those `magnificent machines'.

The visiting cards of the executives of a well-known software company has rather unconventional designations printed below the names - like `chief evangelist' who is in charge of scouting for new business. Well, in a way, he is trying to preach and convert people!

In these days of economic downturn, cash-strapped corporates find it impossible to offer monetary or other tangible compensations. They have found a way out - a process the U.K. corporates call `uptitling' - giving their employees fancy designations that they can show off on their visiting cards. A receptionist is re-branded as the `head, verbal telecommunications', and the window-cleaner is given the impressive designation of `optical illumination enhancer'. The new `stock replenishment executive' in the supermarket is your shelf-stacker and the `technical sanitation assistant' is the one who cleans the toilets.

In a classic case of `down-titling', if one could coin such a word, the calling card of Thomas Bata, the Czechoslovakian patriarch of the eponymous footwear titan, describes him in a matter-of-fact manner as `chief shoe salesman'. Could one say more?

The calling card of film star Ajit is reputed to have just for letters on them - A J I T. Some other celebrities who believe that the name says it all too have followed suit.

Swinging to the other extreme, the visiting cards of most of those working for the public sector are cluttered with information - and they are bilingual to boot - official language rules, you see! An innovative public sector bank executive based in Delhi has found an easy way out - her cards have Hindi on one side and English on the other. When she has to interact with the politicos who are rabidly fanatical about the Raashtra bhaasha, she proffers the card with the Hindi side up! At other times, it is the English version that is exposed.

It is not just paper that cards are printed on. Thick cards are making way for the thin, if environment-unfriendly, plastic cards that sit lightly on your wallet. An exporter of handicrafts has his cards printed on dried leaves of the banyan tree - very delicate and fragile. He has a sturdier variety in laminated donne-ka-patta - the dried leaves they serve food in.

It is small surprise that in this age of technology, visiting cards have taken on the role of presentation tools. The card of G. D. Agarwal of Koch-Rajes CD Industries of Mumbai, is a compact disc giving all information on his company in the form of a power point presentation. The flamboyant liquor baron, Vijay Mallya, too has a CD for his visiting card.

Coming to odd shapes, the owner of a hotel boasting of ethnic Kerala food, has had his card custom-made; it has yellow letters on a leaf-green card shaped like a plantain-leaf! The representatives of the `Round Table', a Hyderabad-based event management team, carry cards that are - you guessed it right - circular!

What do you do when someone gives you his card? Wallow in the comfortable feeling that it contains all that you wanted to know about him, put it in your pocket and give one of yours? Wait a moment. The Japanese consider it an insult if one were to do that. Courtesy demands that you receive the meishi with both hands, `treat it with respect', that is, study the contents carefully, and then put it into a special wallet, the only purpose of which is the storage of visiting cards. When handing over your own, it should be done with both hands in a way that he or she will be able to read the card without turning it around.

So, the next time you place orders for your visiting card or accept the card from a person you are introduced to, remember that it is not as simple as it appears...

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