I am an engineer in a technical field, but I work regularly with sales, and I am often given business cards by vendors or customers at work. I know that I will never use them, and I almost always immediately throw them away. We already have their contact info in our database.

However, accepting the card seems dishonest. I would be embarrassed if they caught me throwing it away, and that's usually a flag for me that I shouldn't be doing something.

I'm also usually very straightforward and blunt. However, it seems rude (even by my standards) to say "No thank you, I wouldn't ever use your business card." I want a way to say that, while also communicating: "This isn't a personal insult, I'm sure other people will find it useful, but I would just put yours in the cylindrical file."

I am not concerned with the "green" aspect of wasting paper, it just seems dishonest to take the card with a smile and throw it away some other time.

Or maybe this is nonsense, and I should just get used to having a pile of business cards somewhere that I purge when necessary. I don't mind if someone wants to engage me in a frame challenge.

If it matters, I am in Chicago, Illinois.

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    Do you have contact info for these clients where you work, in a database/registry file of sorts? Or are these clients that call up to request a service? I'm asking because if it's the former, it might be useful to write an answer about informing them of yourself already having their contact info. – HugoBDesigner May 22 at 17:58
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    Just to be clear, which way is the sales relationship - are you selling to the people who give you cards or is it the other way around? – Em C May 22 at 19:15
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    @EmC It is both, since we're a distributor. We have customers, and we are our vendors customers. – Greg Schmit May 22 at 19:40
  • What is the goodness or upside you hope to achieve by refusing those cards? Are you sending them a message? Is there a self-identity purpose to it? There must be an upside or you would not have the question. – Harper May 26 at 18:26
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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – Arwen Undómiel May 27 at 8:39

13 Answers 13

up vote 62 down vote accepted

As someone who works in technology as well, it seems like business cards proliferate like rabbits in Australia.

Vendor reps expect to give out cards. They prospect for leads and don't expect that every card they give out will lead to a sale - they want you to know what they sell and maybe keep them in mind in case you need a service/product that they offer.

Because of that, I have no problem accepting a card and putting it in a file later on. Some I keep; many I discard. It won't hurt anyone's feelings and I don't think it's dishonest to take a card from someone - I perceive it as "here's my contact info in case you need it". I think it's kind of a jerk move to throw it away right in front of the rep but otherwise, unless you promise to call them about something, they don't expect a lot from you. Additionally, it is a lot less awkward with reps to accept their card than to decline it. That just leads to a longer sales discussion that you may not want to be part of.

Answer: You cannot decline without offense in all cases, and if you wish to be successful, you will politely take the business card, and not throw it away until you are absolutely certain that you will not be observed doing so.

There are entire business cultures built around business card exchange(China comes to mind), and based on your question, it is only a matter of time before you kill a deal because of your attitude towards business cards. Yes, it is that important to many people.

In fact, I recommend getting yourself your own business cards and exchanging them on these occasions. Additionally, get a business card holder to keep them in and place incoming ones from others.

The impoliteness trumps whatever "dishonesty" you are feeling.

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    What possible advantage is there for the OP in having their own cards made up? (Assuming the OP doesn't work in a card-centric environment like China/Japan.) – Martin Bonner May 28 at 7:58

TAKE THE CARD. It's not dishonest, because everyone knows that just giving someone a card doesn't make it 100% or even 50% that the person will ever call you or use your services.

You are asking how to do something that is, well, inherently rude--and you seem to actually want to be honest. Any advice I would give you would involve social lies like "I'm trying to go paperless" (You aren't)

So yeah, take the card, with a smile. And have your own printed up if you don't already. Anytime anyone gives you one, go ahead and burden them with one of your own. (You might want to have a generic one without personal cell phone and just the office number on it made up especially for this).

Honesty is overrated when it comes to people you don't know well. Social lies are the grease that keeps society together, but there are degrees. Take the card and say thank you. You don't need to say "Yes! I will be sure and call you for your services!" Taking the card and saying thank you does not imply that you will treasure their card forever and will call them immediately, or ever.

And, if you give them your card, it might lead to good things that would never have happened.

Have a card pile or filing system (they used to sell these don't know if they still do) and throw them away each year...

As for myself, I almost always take a photo of any business card, sales, marketing, promotion etc. I do it both from environmental aspect and to allow me to easily find it (if relevant) whenever I need it, without the need to dig in the pile of cards.

You can use this method and explain it's for your convenience and for better organizing without losing it, and you get the "green" for free.

For example:

Hey Bob, thanks for your card!
Let me take a photo of it so I can easily find it when (or if) I need to contact you.

  • And then hand him back his business card, and you can add (if you feel it's suitable):

    And we also also helped the environment as a bonus! :)

Another bonus, is that if you take a photo and store it in Google Photos and search by keywords (such as paper or card maybe), or even use Google Lens to scan the business card and save it as a contact. You can then tag the contact in a form it would be easier to remember (or delete later).

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    This seems like a reasonable approach, but answers here should focus more on the interpersonal aspects. Would you mind editing your answer? – apaul May 22 at 23:03
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    @Tinkeringbell I think our feelings towards deleting a photo are much less stronger than actually throwing something someone gave us. And it's also much easier to just ignore it and don't even think about throwing it if it's not a physical thing we have - so it will probably feel less dishonest, since he can still keep it. – arieljannai May 23 at 10:10
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    The other nice thing is that by taking time to scan the card you are showing that you want to keep the information handy, which is itself a compliment. – Paul Johnson May 24 at 10:17
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    Have you tested this method with a wide variety of cultures? Unless you've tried this in a business context within China and Japan, both of which have very strict etiquettes related to the exchange of business cards, this seems like a recipe to offer unintentional offense. – Beofett May 25 at 18:10
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    I live in Israel, so there's a variety of cultures here - but I haven't tried it with East-Asian cultures such as China and Japan. You're right about that if there's a very strict etiquette about something like that, it's probably better to keep with it, so you won't offend unintentionally, as you said. The OP added that he's from Chicago, and I think that in less strict cultures it can pass well (though I don't have a worldwide experience about it). – arieljannai May 26 at 11:45

Aside from cultural norms as alluded to in an earlier answer, there are two main reasons people hand out their business card:

  1. So you have their contact information
  2. So you remember them personally

It seems like you're focusing on the first, but the second can be just as important.

This is true especially for the sales reps you encounter. They're trying to not only get you to buy their company's product, but also buy their company's product from them. Thus, the business card is so that if you think "Oh man, I could really use some widgets!" you don't contact general-sales@widgets.com, but you go straight to joe.salesman@widgets.com instead, and he gets the commission. Joe Salesman knows that personal rapport with the customer makes a sale and repeat business more likely, and the business card exchange is a step towards that.

Since you already have a database of contacts, this addresses point #1 - the card isn't necessary to get their contact information. However, you still need to address the other and demonstrate that you will remember them if you ever need to do business with them in the future (however unlikely you think it may be!). I've found an effective way to do this is to say something with a personal touch based on your conversation, to signal that were paying attention. For new contacts, it can be as simple as reiterating their name as if you're actively memorizing it:

Thanks but no need for the card, my company actually has your info already (smile). Joe Salesman, right? I'll be sure to call you up if I ever need some widgets! Great meeting you! (exit stage right)

This reassures the person that you are likely to remember meeting them in the future, without needing a card to remind you. You could also offer alternatives such as taking a photo or suggesting they send you an email instead, so they are even more assured that you have their information.

Another option you could try is to include a socially acceptable excuse placing the "blame" on you:

I always lose these things, but I know we have your info in the system if I need to look it up!

However, only try declining once and if they insist, take it! You can always dispose of it discreetly later on. This is just one of those social niceties -- you don't think everyone that you give a card to keeps it forever, right? It's still polite to accept things when offered and this is so little burden on you that it's not worth causing an awkward situation over, especially in a professional setting.


This answer is summarizing my corporate experiences and training about professional behavior, as well as anecdotes from a family member in sales. For further reading, this article and these Quora answers elaborate on some benefits of business cards, namely:

- A business card leaves a stronger and more personal impression than simply looking up someone's details
- Cards are a physical reminder of the person, so if you promise to follow up and later forget, there's a better chance you'll remember when you see the card again

which helps to explain the other person's motivations for handing one to you.

  • Your #2 point is very close to another: allow people to remember who they'd seen earlier that day/week. Even if you already do business with someone, it might be useful to have a reminder that one also saw them at XYZ trade show, etc. though unfortunately most people don't organize cards well enough to really accomplish that. – supercat May 25 at 15:58

tl;dr

You are 100% right, what you are trying to avoid is nonsense.

The risk to reward ratio of declining a business card is unequivocally terrible.


long version

Take the card, say thank you, and put it away in your pocket or wallet or whatever for future disposal. Never dispose in their presence and don't put yourself in a situation where they can see it clearly in your garbage can so you should probably shred business cards.

There is no polite way to decline a business card unless you are in the following scenarios:


Client asks "Do you have my card?"

You respond "I believe so. I definitely know we have your info stored in our system."

Client may say "Great." or they may say "Well, take one anyways, I have tons."

You say "thank you", etc...


Client says "Here's my card."

If you've received one in the past with 100% certainty then "I believe I already have one." is an Okay-ish response.

The client could still be put off by this and think "Wow, it's a simple card, why do you remember such an insignificant detail, was our current or previous encounter so daunting?"

Think of it this way: you aren't accepting a business card, you're accepting a gesture.

A printed business card costs what? Ten cents? Twenty? If you're talking to a professional that's charging $60/hr that's about 6 seconds worth of their time. If it takes you more than that much time to refuse the card, you're actually wasting their resources, not saving them.

So what does the gesture mean? It's an invitation to call them when you need help. Maybe it means something more, maybe not. But if the act of engaging in the ritual of taking the card plus your company's electronic database handles all of the implications of the gesture, then the piece of paper itself is worth almost nothing.

I can guarantee you 100% without a shred of doubt that if you call on one of these vendors or customers using numbers pulled from your electronic database, not a single one of them is going to care that you used the database rather than their piece of paper. None of them will consider that dishonest.

Accept the gesture. Don't sweat the card. If you feel bad about being wasteful accepting a few business cards at an event that you didn't need, you can always serve penance by handing a homeless person some loose change. If you get a lot (like 20 or more), consider giving the homeless person $5 to make sure the karma all balances out =)

  • A printed business card averages at around $0.01 :) no reason at all not to take the card and leave it at that. – René Roth Jun 10 at 1:11

You are overthinking this. Take the card, and read it (not aloud!) in the presence of the person who gave it to you. Smile and say Thanks. When you get home, put the ones you don't want in the circular file and the ones you want to keep in a Rolodex or whatever has take the place of a Rolodex. I did this for decades, and never got embarrassed. Do not refuse a card: the cost/benefit ratio of doing so as a habit is very, very large if you offend even one person likely to be important to you (cost large, benefit close to zero.)

Take a photo of their card on your phone.

You asked how to politely decline a card, this is the best I could think of that does that.

When they offer the card simply say the following:

"Thanks for the offer, but I always end up loosing cards and there's much important people than me to give these too. Here, let me take a picture of your contact details so I have them in case I want to get back to you."

Arguably one of the more British sentences I've written, it does the following:

  • Explains you often lose cards so don't want to waste theirs.
  • Self-deprecating humour to break the ice.
  • Tactfully says you'll get back to them if you want to. Might want to reword the last sentence depending on politeness.

Personally, I'd take the card, but I take photos of them before throwing them away in case I ever need them again.

I've gotten responses of relief and laughter from most of the people whose cards I've refused. All the business cards I've been offered in the last several years have been at meetings where a calendar invite system was used and therefore everyone who is at the meeting has their contact information attached to the calendar entry.

I simply tell people,

Oh, I already have your contact information in the meeting in Outlook. [Pull out my smart phone and open up the entry] Your e-mail address is person@company.com, right?

Some people insist I take a card and I generally give in at that point and recycle the card once they leave. Others are happy that I won't take one of their last cards.

It probably also helps that I have not had business cards printed for me in years, so I never have one to trade. As an IT person, it has become part of my image to have command over contact information in the digital world and eschew business cards that seem hopelessly dated to me.

Caveat: I am not now nor have I ever been in a position in any way related to sales.

This ought to work alright in a 1v1 setting:

Like any other unwanted gift that someone may try to impose upon you...

When try try to hand you the card, just adjust your hand so your extended fingertips are above your palm. This "stop" sign will clearly communicate the message.

At the same time, speak, and say, "I've already got your information in the contact database that we use."

You may be concerned about refusing to cooperate. However, the implication here is not that you are being uncooperative. The implication is that you are simply updating them on the status, which is that you have the situation handled. The situation is that they want you to have contact information, and you just politely let them know that's already taken care of.

Alternatively, if you aren't sure that you have someone's contact information, you could ask them, "Do you have your info on your company website?"

Regardless of which response you give, try to say something else to move the conversation along. This will move the focus off of the failed business card delivery, and since they appear to be in a no-win situation with their attempt to give you a business card, they will likely tactfully seek to focus on wherever else the conversation may be heading. Which, pleasantly, you likely have an opportunity to influence (and even control).

If you're sitting at a table and he hands them out to each person sitting, you might not have an opportunity to tactfully express that you are declining. However, if you aren't necessarily trying to impress the person, you could just leave their litter on the table (as long as you haven't touched it). They might decide to clean up the table... or they might decide to leave it there in hopes that someone else productively sees it.

Remember, these things are typically purchased in bulk and rather cheap. If you could benefit from using a business card simply as a piece of paper to write on (if it isn't too glossy to effectively write on), go ahead and use it. Another option may be to throw it away, even in front of them, which simply shows your lack of need to have a business card. However, do not do this if you thanked them when they hand you the card. You must not show appreciation and then show a lack of value, as that will look hypocritically inconsiderate.

There's nothing dishonest about accepting a business card that you will never look at again. Well, nothing more dishonest than any of the other polite gestures people routinely make. Like saying, "Have a nice day" when you really don't care whether the person has a nice day or not.

I regularly see ads for business cards that say "500 for $10" or such prices. Business cards cost maybe 2 cents each. It's not like the person is going to some major expense when they give you a card.

Refusing to talk someone's card is rather rude, effectively saying, "I can't imagine why I would ever want to speak to you again."

What's the gain? I remember years ago seeing one of those advice columns in the newspaper, Dear Abby or some such, where someone wrote in asking what to do about a relative who was constantly giving her family cheap presents. Like he'd get give-aways from salesmen and fairs and then give them to her kids for birthday presents. The columnist replied that it cost her nothing to accept his cheap gifts and throw them away, and there was nothing to be gained by refusing to accept them. She'd insult her relative and, for what?

If you refuse a card, you risk insulting the person offering it. What's the up side? You save the 3 seconds of your time it would take to throw it away? But you probably spend more time than that making polite excuses why you don't want it.

I suppose if you're a very serious environmentalist, you might say that accepting these cards and throwing them away is unnecessary pollution. That's about the only half-way valid reason I can think of. (I suddenly wonder: does Al Gore hand out business cards? If so, is he careful not to give them to people who will probably throw them away. :-)

Accepting or rejecting a business card is part of the information exchange you already have with the person offering the card.

The card is just a different medium than speech. The conversation continues without break, switching to the medium "card", and possibly back to speech.

Let's translate the "card" medium to the "speech" medium:
by offering the card,the other person says "by the way, that's me (and details)".

I'ts expressed very quick if you just routinely take the card, without even really looking at it. It continues by some end like "thanks" and walking away or some gesture. Or the conversation continues, if your'e interested. Now you have the card, and can express your interest by asking a question or anything else.

Now, let's translate possible proposed responses:

Dropping it to the ground immediately, with an evil eye means "fuck off".

Dropping it to the ground immediately, means a strong "go away".

Throwing it away immediately (to bin, table etc.) means "Shut up".

Throwing it away behind the next corner into a bin, even if he sees it means "not what I'm interested in".

Putting it into your briefcase with smile means "thank you, that's interesting"

I leave "let's go outside and have a bar fight" and "I'd like to have sex with you" as exercise for the reader.

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