Getting started with genetic genealogy is easy: Get a kit, send off your sample, and await the results. But those results can have huge surprises, not only for you, but also for your matches. Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, shares some things we need to consider around the ethics of genetic genealogy.
DNA is a powerful tool to use in our genealogy research. It can also feel incredibly overwhelming. I sat down with Blaine Bettinger, the Genetic Genealogist, for his tips on how to get started, what to keep in mind, and how to work through all of those matches that we have.
It seems that whenever there is an announcement about a milestone in DNA testing or a news article comes out about a “surprising find” using DNA (or Ancestry starts re-running the “lederhosen and kilt” commercial), there’s a commotion on social media.
To my fellow professionals in the genealogy field, can we please stop wringing our hands about newcomers using DNA?
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 AncestryDNA 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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
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.