How the Doorway Effect Makes Business Cards Still Relevant

You might think that when practically everyone you meet has a smartphone that electronic exchange of contact information would have superseded business cards. But it hasn't.

Primarily this is because there isn't a convenient standard. You could try to connect on social networking sites, but that doesn't always work because maybe you use LinkedIn and the other person uses Viadeo. There have also been many attempts to make business-card-killer apps, like Bump. Back in 2011 Bump was going to make business cards a thing of the past; today it is no longer available. Many others have tried the same thing but it won't replace paper cards until there is a more or less universal standard, like email.

But there are other reasons for continuing to use paper business cards. First of all there is the ritual aspect. Rituals are actually very important for social interactions and the exchange of business cards is a key ritual in business relationships, marking the point where we effectively invite the other person to communicate with us. Eventually we will develop a suite of digital rituals, but there is no consensus yet in the business world.

Business cards are also extremely important in societies that are more status conscious, so in many countries they are taken much more seriously, sometimes accepted with both hands and studied carefully before being placed, pristine, in a special card case. In these cultures mistreating someone's card would be an insult; not having or offering a card would be an unforgivable mistake.

Yet even in cultures where cards are less important as status markers, even where most people have a smartphone in their pocket, there is still another argument in favor of paper cards: the doorway effect. In a fascinating 2006 study* Gabriel Radvansky and David Copeland discovered that when people walk through a doorway their short term memory is cleared. Normally this has a negative impact on networking events because you meet someone interesting, promise to send things, make mental notes to follow up and then as soon as you have left the room these memories are erased.

This is where the paper card turns out to be more useful than you expect. Perhaps you meet someone and have an interesting conversation but forget it as soon as you leave the room. Later, when you get back to your office or home and empty your pockets the cards remind you about the people you meet, but this time with the crucial difference that you are in a much better position to actually do something. You might even get a second reminder days later when you tidy your desk.

Eventually paper cards will be replaced, though not until there are some global standards in place for swapping data between devices in close proximity. We are not there yet. And when that happens we will also need a digital replacement for the memory jogging effect to overcome the doorway effect.


* Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Situation models and experienced space, Memory & Cognition, July 2006, Volume 34, Issue 5, pp1150-1156.

More about professional networking

There's much more about professional networking in my book Payforward Networking on the Amazon Kindle bookstore. There will also be a paperback edition soon.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

In addition to writing this blog Andrew Hennigan does lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing about networking and other communication topics. You can reach him by email at conseil@andrewhennigan.com, by phone at 0046 730 894 475 or 0033 6 79 61 42 81 and through his website http://andrewhennigan.com

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