Is there anyone out there besides genealogists who find themselves writing letters to family members they've never met?
Last week, I received a message from a fifth cousin. Not too many people can make a claim like that. Those of us keen on making connections via DNA testing, however, have learned to build out our family tree to include "descendants of" as well as "ancestors of" entries. Getting a note with confirmation that it is from a distant family member takes not much more effort to confirm than to pull up that ever-expanding database called an online family tree. My tree provided the relationship without my having to sketch out any back-of-napkin calculations.
The thing with that contact, though, is that I now find such messages few and far between. With the convenience of online genealogy comes a down side: family history is no longer a team effort, but a solitary expedition. We don't even have to coerce the family into taking that family vacation detour to snap a photo of Aunt Daisy's headstone; we can just look it up on Find A Grave. In the comfort of our own home. At 3:00 a.m., when everyone else is sleeping.
Think about it: when was the last time you reached out to a fellow family researcher you don't even know, to collaborate on a brick wall problem, or to share resources? Did you even receive an answer? How did it go?
Switching roles from instigator to recipient, what was that experience like? Was it for a correct connection? How recent was your last message received? Was it a one-shot question and answer, or did it blossom into an ongoing research partnership?
For whatever reason, it seems the mere gesture of reaching out to a stranger who shares at least a budding interest—if not an outright passion—in common with us as family historians is intimidating. Perhaps it's the fear of the unknown: of how our message will be received, of whether scrutiny will read between lines which aren't even there to misconstrue. There are numerous blog posts offering advice to tentative family historians on how to connect with researchers in other branches of their family. Is it really so scary that we need that much advice?
Perhaps the idea of posting a generic comment in a forum—or, to update the scenario, in social media—is less threatening. We can ask our "does anybody know" question under guise of a user name and, if the question merits the label "silly" or "dumb," we can always backpedal and tag it, "asking for a friend." The answer may or may not return to us, of course, for social media can be that way—or if the right response is provided, lacking search mechanisms, we may never find it by scrolling through the endless loop of such services. But neither do we need to privately suffer cringe-worthy responses, either. We are safe yet uninformed in our anonymous forays into groups.
Yet, services like many online family tree companies provide ways for us to message other individual researchers. The communication is direct, immediate (well, if the recipient signs in and sees the tiny flagging system), and can lead to potential answers. It helps to keep a few things in mind when choosing that method of communication.
- Don't assume the other researcher is your enemy. Be cordial, clear, and invite collaboration. We used to call this type of communication a "query" because we are sending just that: a request for help, not a command to cooperate.
- Don't assume recipients have nothing better to do with their time than wait for your letter. Some researchers have found themselves avoiding their messages because they have been barraged with notes from other subscribers, or because of an unexpected recent family history discovery which they find troubling. A kind tone, a humble plea may go much farther in eliciting a response.
- Don't equate your request with an all-or-nothing scenario. Most research partnerships between distant cousins begin with a sense that collaboration is a two way street: I have something you need, and you also can provide helpful information to me. We are all exploring this family history mystery together.
In all my years of researching family history, I have encountered both the demanding messages that would make any recipient shudder, and I have met the most gracious distant cousins any researcher would be honored to call family. On account of the former type, I know other researchers who have gone so far as to shut themselves off from any contact—making their Ancestry tree private and unsearchable, for instance, because of insulting communication—to avoid any troubling messages in the future. What a loss for the research community in general.
On the other hand, I have had the most rewarding long-term research relationships with other distant cousins, in which we have continued over years, sometimes, to share discoveries and push the envelope on our shared brick wall challenges. To think the loss of some of these fruitful relationships could all come down to the wording in a first-impression message is staggering. Perhaps that is why some of us hesitate to send out that first contact. Yet, writing that first letter, then setting it aside for a second review later before finally sending it on its way, may save us from ourselves and those unintended slights that can so easily be misinterpreted.
Yes, there may be some for whom genealogy is indeed a lone endeavor, but I am still firmly convinced—poorly worded letters aside—that family history is a team effort. Not just in the quest to make discoveries, but in the afterglow of sharing that sense of research victory. When we grow big enough to see beyond a poor choice of wording and reach out to nurture research alliances, perhaps we will win more people over to join our team.