Tips From a Ruthless Phone Screener (sorry Michelle Beadle)

That’s right, I said it.  I’m a screener.  If you claim you don’t screen incoming calls you either don’t have caller ID (do better), or you are just always in a chatty mood (something’s wrong with you). I’m not just referring to the mandatory screens: unrecognized area codes, insane exes, bill collectors (you’ll get your money when I’m good and ready). No no, I’m standing proudly at the top of this mountain shouting this message: It’s OK to screen…just don’t get caught.

The ESPN show SportsNation is hosted by Colin Cowherd and Michelle Beadle. Cowherd hosts the most entertaining and brilliant show on radio (The Herd) on ESPN Radio. Beadle’s popularity is skyrocketing as she has recently become star of her own ESPN podcast. She is one of the most engaging and genuine personalities on television, period (if you watch WWE Monday Night Raw, follow her tweets during the show. You’re welcome). On Friday, Beadle tweeted this warning to a coworker:

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Many loyal Beadle followers began tweeting sympathizing reassurance, (@ESPN_Michelle) saying they would gladly answer her call anytime. The coworker who drew Michelle’s ire violated a basic rule of screening: NEVER SCREEN WHEN THE CALLER MIGHT BE ABLE TO SEE YOU. Some of us learn this by experience, and this coworker will surely never make this rookie screening mistake again.

One ordinary evening, many years before my amazing wife rescued me from the nightly grind of the beer and cigarette circuit, I was sitting in a cozy booth with 3 friends in the most comfortable watering hole in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. We were regulars at Stool Pigeons, and if anyone wanted to find me on any given evening, they were well served to begin their search there. We favored the booths, because they provided arena-like seating to ogle the newcomers, the opportunity to be served by waitstaff instead of squeezing in at the bar, and a proper setting to regale each other with our witty and sophomoric stories. It was in one of these booths one night that I happened upon the golden rule of screening.

The bar was packed. We were safe in our booth of solitude but every trip to the restroom was a 25 minute affair. Wading through the sea of people was something akin to the streets of Madrid during the running of the bulls, but in this case the bull was your bladder. On nights like this, it was common to see potential bar-goers walk up to the front door, survey the carnage, and move along in search of a less crowded scene. I happened to be facing the entrance, and through the human cornfield I could see someone I knew approaching the door. Luckily, he couldn’t see me, presumably because his vision was not as hawk-like as mine. At that moment, a memory flooded my mind. I was supposed to call that person once I decided what time we were going out that night. Oops. Well, perhaps not an ‘oops’ as much as a ‘I have no desire to hang out with that person tonight or ever’. I saw him dig his phone out of his pocket. He dialed and brought the phone to his ear. My phone rang. When I saw his name pop up on caller ID (it’s really cool , you should get it), I instinctually lifted the phone to my ear and spoke into it.  “Hello?… Hello??”, I exclaimed, “Helloooo…. oh well I guess I have no reception here.” Yep, I couldn’t hear a thing.  That’s because I never answered the call.  Yup, never pressed the talk button. Just picked it up and played some pretend.

My table mates looked at me. “Who was that?”, one of them inquired. “Dude at the door,” I replied. “I sure did promise to let him in on the plans for the night, but never did.” That’s when I went on to explain the strategical tactic I had just happened upon. “I was afraid that he would dial my number, and while waiting for me to pick up he would spot me sitting in the booth. He would then see me look at my phone, verify the identity of the caller as him, and then unceremoniously set my phone back down with a look of disgust and carry on about my evening.” Boom. Screened. Right before your eyes. A social fate worse than death. While I didn’t want to spend my free time with that guy, I still didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so if he did spot me, he would see me at least attempt to answer his call, and assume I had suffered some sort of device-related communicative failure, and that it was no fault of my own. Sure, if he saw me he would come in and make my night suck anyway, but if he didn’t see me, well, why answer the call? Airtight.

My goal in screening is never to hurt feelings, just to avoid talking for multiple reasons. Talking on the phone sucks. My ear gets all hot and the goodbyes are always longer than they need to be (and when we tried to shorten our goodbyes that’s when we conversationally challenged dudes came up with that forced air, hiccup-like bark that dominated male-to-male phone call endings in the mid 90s…”SEEYA!”). That said, we screeners need to follow a certain etiquette and respect some rules of engagement. If there is ANY chance that the person calling you can see you at the moment your phone rings, don’t screen.  And if you do, at least pretend you tried to answer. Everybody wins that way.

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