DNA has unlocked countless genealogical mysteries. Whether it’s a woman learning she has two half sisters or finding a match that helps break down a brick wall, the potential of DNA as a genealogical tool cannot be overstated. So why is it that when we take an AncestryDNA test, our matches don’t respond when we reach out to them?
(I’m going to focus my responses based on my experience with AncestryDNA, but some of these reasons are applicable to other DNA testing sites as well.)
Your Match Only Wanted the Ethnicity Estimate
Just like people start doing genealogy for a variety of reasons, people take DNA tests for different reasons. Some people who take an DNA test are only interested in the ethnicity estimate. They aren’t interested in meeting genetic cousins. They’re just curious to get a general idea of where they came from.
But I have to say that I'm ok with people who take the test just for the ethnicity estimate. Some of them will eventually want to get involved in genealogy.
Your Match Is an Adoptee
DNA has reunited countless adoptees with birth families. This doesn’t mean that all adoptees want to respond to every genetic match they get. If your estimated relationship is 3rd cousin, but they don’t know who their parents are, they may not see the point in communicating.
Even if your relationship is closer, they may not be ready to communicate. Making contact with members of a birth family is really big deal. They might need some time to work up to responding.
The Match Is a Surprise
If testing shows a relationship that your match doesn’t think is possible — what do you mean Grandpa had a family before marrying Grandma?! — they might not want to deal with it right now.
Judy Russell is not only the Legal Genealogist —she's also very interested in genetic genealogy. She has excellent advice on proceeding ethically with contacting our matches, especially when there is a surprise. You can watch our interview here.
And if you think that these surprises don't change anything, listen to the experience Jenny Hawran had when her DNA matches revealed that her Dad wasn't her biological father.
Your Relationship Isn't Close Enough
“Distant cousin” doesn’t excite everyone, especially if you don’t give any clues in your message how you think you might be related.
Blaine Bettinger, the Genetic Genealogist, shared his systematic strategy for contacting matches. You can watch my interview with Blaine here.
Your Match Didn't Get the Message
Ancestry’s messaging system has been known to have its quirks. It’s possible that your match didn’t receive the message. They might also not have noticed the icon that shows they have a message. And, yes, it is possible that they haven’t been on the site for awhile. (Believe it or not, not everyone goes on Ancestry or MyHeritage every day!)
Your Message Didn't Say Enough
What message did you send to your match? A message like “Hi! We’re genetic cousins. Let’s talk” doesn’t instill a lot of enthusiasm to respond. Introduce yourself, tell the estimated relationship, and the name of the common ancestors (if shown). If the match doesn’t show the common ancestors, give a general idea of where your research is. (For example, tell where your great-great-grandparents lived to give the other person a starting point. Or if you know several people in the generation that you think the match occurs, share the names of the ancestors that you know.)
Don’t take it personally if a match doesn’t respond. Don’t let it raise your blood pressure. Just because the person is a genetic cousin doesn’t mean that they have to respond to your message, even if they received it. And remember: It could be that they haven’t responded yet. It doesn't mean that they never will.