A common, somewhat less convenient but surely more effective method of preventing unwanted calls than caller ID can provide. As described above, screening your calls involves letting your answering machine pick up all incoming calls, and answering only if you hear someone speaking to your machine that you want to speak to.

This small shift in how you handle your telephone produces all sorts of wonderful benefits to your quality of life:

  • You're not a slave to your telephone anymore. I don't understand where the notion came from, when it started, or why people still believe it, but these days most people seem to feel obligated to answer their telephone when it rings. Presumably this is because when someone takes the time to call you, they have something important to say to you. Of course, this mentality arose and became burned into the cultural psyche long before the advent of telemarketing, so these days it's not even true anymore. By not automatically answering your phone when it rings, you're freeing yourself completely from telephone tyranny.
  • You completely avoid the telemarketing scourge. If you screen every call, you are guaranteed never to have to speak to a telemarketer ever again. Read that again. Forget caller ID, forget do not call lists, forget yelling at telemarketers to get them off your phone. Just never speak to one again. Telemarketers use modern equipment to call as many people simultaneously as possible. Such equipment immediately recognizes answering machine recordings, and hang up automatically. Those that don't end up putting a real person on the phone, only to end up speaking to a machine, and not you. A few clever ones leave a pre-recorded message on your machine when they realize you're screening; these are easy to deal with (see below).
  • You avoid talking to people you don't want to talk to. I'm including this in a different category -- telemarketers aren't people. For whatever reason, you might not want to talk to a specific caller. With caller ID, you might not know who's really calling; with screening, you hear the voice of the caller. For whatever reason, from "you think I'm somewhere else and you can fire me if you discover I'm at home" to "I'm still pissed at you for last night," you don't have to pick up if you don't want to.
  • People learn to have an actual reason to call you. This may just be me, but I find it incredibly irritating when somebody calls me, "just to see if I'm home," but doesn't leave a message. Once people figure out you're screening, they realize they must leave a message, or they'll never get to talk to you unless you call them.
  • Compared to products like caller ID, and unidentified caller blocking, this is cheap as hell. Most phone companies these days have got bundles of useless crap to tack on to basic phone service, sometimes costing up to $30 extra per month. The best part is they then sell other services to telemarketing firms to get around the services they're selling you. Instead of paying $5 a month for caller ID, $5 a month for "block all calls from unidentified callers", and $12 a month for "this number does not accept telemarketing calls. If you are a telemarketer, hang up now. If not, please enter your phone number" service, screen your calls instead and save tons of money every month. Even the most spiffy, advanced answering machine/cordless phone combo won't take more than ten months ($200) to pay for itself in saved fees.
  • Wrong numbers never bother you. Never again will a "sorry, I dialed the wrong number" or a "dammit! Why aren't you the dog kennel I wanted to call?" conversation interrupt sweet, sweet lovin'.
  • You'll never hear from a collection agency this way. Collection agencies piss me off anyway (whether or not I owe money to somebody, collection agencies are scumbags), but they're even worse when they keep calling your number looking for someone else. They won't listen to your protests either (i.e. "he's just lying to stop us calling him"). They will absolutely never leave messages. Never, ever. They used to, in the form of "Please call 1-800-NUT-CRAK for an important message," but these days even those have stopped because too many people sued 'em for disclosing private information to other parties (i.e. "Hi, Bob, this is Jodie from Bastard Collections calling about your overdue Citibank credit card account. If you don't pay the $194.95 you owe by tomorrow, we're going to sue you. Goodbye."). Screening puts a stop to that kind of thing altogether, whether you owe money or just happened to get assigned the phone number of a deadbeat.

Effective Call Screeing
It seems obvious at first -- "don't answer your phone unless someone starts speaking that you want to talk to" -- but like everything else worth doing, there's more to it than that.

  • Get an all-digital answering machine, preferably one intergrated into a cordless telephone. An all-digital answering machine can selectively erase messages, and can usually automatically stop recording, and delete what it's recorded so far, when you press STOP while a pre-recorded message plays into it (or when someone you don't want to talk to or hear from is speaking), and hang up the line. A machine integrated into a cordless telephone will automatically stop recording and let you speak to the caller if you pick up while the caller is speaking. A cordless telephone, on its own, is remarkably handy; you don't have to be near the base to have a conversation.
  • Record a quick, effective outgoing message. Sit down with a pen and paper, or since we're going all digital anyway, at a computer, and draft an effective message. It should say something like this:
    • "Hi. You've reached (insert your phone number here). We're currently screening all calls, so please begin speaking at the tone. If we're not available, we'll return your call as soon as possible, so please include your name, number, and the reason for your call. Thanks!"
    Rehearse it a few times, then record it onto your answering machine. Don't insert clever delays to try to fool telemarketing autodialers, and be sure you know which button starts recording, and which button stops recording (oddly enough, the engineers who make these damned things still haven't gotten it right in the usability department) so there aren't delays at the start or end of your message, or random button mashing sounds as you hit buttons at random trying to stop recording. It's important to tell your callers that you're screneing, so they know they'll be speaking to a machine. This also lets them make the choice never to call you again if they really hate talking to machines (their loss, I suppose). It may suck to miss such a call, but such is life.
  • Turn off the ringer, set the machine to answer as quickly as possible (or, perhaps, set it to toll-saver if appropriate for you), and set the machine's volume to a reasonable level. Why bother ringing when you're not going to answer right away anyway? Since you know the machine will always be picking up, having it answer quickly is just a courtesy to your callers. Toll-saver is up to you. Setting the machine's audio playback volume is important; do you want to be awakened at night by an important call? Do you care whether you can hear the thing from across the house or not? If you want it to be heard day and night, crank it up. Otherwise, set it somewhere in the middle.
  • Be consistent. You're taking control of your telephone, so use it. Unless you're really expecting a call and you know who it will be and when it will be made, don't pick up when the phone rings (turning off the ringer stops this habit). If you tell people you talk to frequently that you'll usually pick up if you're home and they start chattering away, do so. If you catch yourself saying "oh, I was home, I just didn't want to talk to anyone" often, you shouldn't set the expectation that you'll answer when people talk to your machine.
  • Only return calls that need to be returned. Another obvious one, but it needs to be said. If someone actually speaks to your machine but just says "I'm just calling to see if you're there," nothing else is needed. You weren't there when he called, so now he knows that. If a telemarketer leaves a message, delete it. If an ex calls asking "why oh why won't you call me back?!?!", only respond if you actually want to. Just remember that leaving a message doesn't entitle a person to a response.

There are a few negative aspects to call screening. They're not that bad, but you might want to keep these in mind before you switch to this style of phone wrangling.

  • A few people hate leaving messages on machines at all, and even telling them you're screening won't make them do it. Folks like these are hard enough to work with anyway; adding call screening to the mix probably isn't going to change much.
  • A few telemarketers are persistent enough to talk anyway. That, or their machines are stupid and they start spewing pre-recorded drivel the minute your machine picks up. Salesmen are trained never to take "no" for an answer, so even though "hey I'm screening my calls 'cause I'm sick of salesmen!" should be telling them to go away, sometimes they don't take the hint. These are dead simple to deal with, though; push the STOP button on your machine to just automatically hang up on 'em.
  • Some answering machines and phone service combinations will result in "fast busy" error tones being recorded as messages on your machine. Sprint in Las Vegas, Nevada is like this; once a telemarketing autodialer calls your line, and gets a machine, it hangs up. Because your answering machine hasn't noticed that yet (it won't until it starts listening for stuff to record), but the line is already dropped, your local circuit will just start beeping to get you to hang up your end. This might annoy you, or it might not. Try it and see.
  • Some businesses won't leave much of a message (for "privacy" reasons). Collection agencies will never leave a message, and even businesses you want to hear from may not say much -- "Hi, Andre, this is Jane at Spiffy Lending Corporation, please call me at 1-800-4-OR-MUNY." If you're waiting on something important, like whether the lender has approved your mortgage application, you may want to turn the ringer back on and just answer the phone.
  • People might call you names, like "yuppie," "tightwad," "shut-in," or "hermit," thinking you're trying to shut out the world. These people are assholes. Explain to them, if it's worth your time, that you are shutting out the advertisers and other kruft from your life the telephone likes to bring you.

If you're sick of caller ID not working (blocked/unavailable numbers, etc.), quit paying for it, and just screen your calls instead.

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