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Time to Stop Playing Business Card Scrabble With Our Qualifications?

This week both my real life and my Twitter feed have been jumping with the question of post-nominal letters: what letters (if any) should you put after your name on a business card?
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This week both my real life and my Twitter feed have been jumping with the question of post-nominal letters: what letters (if any) should you put after your name on a business card? I live in Washington D.C. where business cards are traded like gold. It's not a secret that whatever goes on these cards can convey certain impressions and engender judgment -- if my post-nominal letters are influencing the weight of my gold, I want to know how.

The controversy lies in identifying which postnominal letters are valid and appropriate contenders for a business card. Honors, an OBE from the Queen? Sure, why not. University/college qualifications -- fine, but should one qualification trump another? If you have an MSc, is it not only redundant but crass to also mention your BSc? Similarly, should a PhD bump your MA off your post-nominal list?

And what about memberships of professional organizations? Some of these organizations bestow certain post-nominal letters upon you if you've passed exams, or if you're a paid-up member, or both. Do letters that are bought rather than earned have any place on your business card, or can they perhaps be more relevant than degrees, signifying as they often do your current membership or commitment to something? Technically you could join all sorts of esoteric organizations and line up your post-nominals into a triple word scoring Scrabble triumph across your business card.

But should you aspire to doing that? Is an alphabet of post-nominal letters impressive proof of your excellence or conversely, a gauche faux pas? It may depend where you are. Wikipedia suggests the lines of post-nominal convention/tastefulness are drawn differently in different cultures -- Brits, for instance, may be more conducive to alphabet soup, while for Americans, less may be more. Personally, I noticed lists of my own qualifications have been disproportionately sought in Japan and India.

At the end of the day, what's the point of it all? Whether you put your post-nominal letters on your autosignature, your business card, or your family Christmas cards, in my opinion the purpose is surely to announce that you are a learned person, to establish qualification and credibility. Which can of course be helpful in some contexts. But in this day and age, how useful or appropriate is it to automatically make that declaration in full to every unsuspecting person to whom you offer a business card?

It feels to me that we're in a time where a) people increasingly possess an alphabet of qualifications, so it's not a terribly helpful differentiator. In fact, in many circles it's almost an assumption, and b) employers increasingly care more about competencies, responsibilities, and proven abilities in the real world than about whether you once passed an exam or two.

My informal straw poll of a statistically significant and not at all biased (ahem) sample of 13 U.S. and UK dwellers on Twitter and Facebook seem to be on the fence. In the UK, six people said no to post-nominal letters; three said yes; for Americans, two yeses and two nos; however, several of the yes people specify that you should only mention vocational qualifications that are specifically pertinent to your current job (like a particular architect qualification if you work in architecture, for instance). Listing your PhD or MBA also seems to be considered acceptable and sometimes relevant, though not always necessary. However, if you're a Master or a Bachelor of something generic, the general view seems to be to save it for the CV -- not everyone needs to know about it. It's your employment information that counts.

A highly scientific follow-up study of the 300-ish U.S. and UK-biased business cards stored on my CardMunch app confirms that this view seems to be being applied in practice: other than residual mentions of a PhD or such, the practice of flaunting lists of post-nominal letters is largely becoming obsolete, the preserve of the job-seeking intern or perhaps the academic. And -- with the exception of one respondent, who reported her company disapproves of anything but name and contact details on business cards -- suave job titles on a crisp, succinct card, seem to be the new black. Or, should I say, the new gold.

Disclaimer: All information here is entirely subjective, and based on my own experiences in the world of business card etiquette and norms, which are obviously biased.

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