Dear Genetic Cousin

An open letter to my genetic cousins

Dear Genetic Cousin,

I’m resigned to the fact that, no matter how long I live, there are going to be things in this world that I just don’t “get.”

I don’t “get” heavy metal. (Note the deliberate absence of the word “music” following “heavy metal.”)

I don’t “get” Twilight.

I don’t “get” liver as a food item. Ever. In any form. Under any circumstances.

And I don’t “get” paying big bucks to take a DNA test and then not bothering to work with genetic cousins to try to see where the results might lead.

Yeah, that’s you I’m talking to. You, my genetic cousin, who paid to take a DNA test, presumably (at least in part) for genealogy purposes, and then never ever follow up when a geneic cousin — like me — writes or contacts you and offers to share information.

Top 5 23andMe Matches

I’ve been bugged by this on 23andMe more than anywhere else. The chart above shows my five closest matches on 23andMe. My closest match by far is Number One — the one at the top — possibly as close as a third cousin. He’s been sitting there, with my invitation to try to work together, for a year now. Not one single solitary word in response. Numbers Two and Three are wonderful people, even if we haven’t yet figured out who our Most Recent Common Ancestor is. Number Four is like Number One — just sitting there — teasing.

And what’s with Number Five anyway? Bad enough to be ignored, but geez… I feel like I just invited the cute boy in school to the Sadie Hawkins Dance… and got turned down.

Now before you jump in here, yes, I am fully aware that the big appeal of 23andMe is health testing, not genealogical testing. Every single time I sign on, I get nagged and nagged and nagged to answer health questions. I wish there was a way to turn off the health stuff in my case. Not only am I not interested but most of the results are, frankly, silly. It does me no good at all to know that Number Two and I share 85.52% of the gene for female fertility, especially since Number Two is a guy.

I’ve seen some online discussions lately about DNA testing and the blind contacts that can result. One writer who tested with 23andMe called people who contacted her to exchange genealogy information “creepy.”1 One of the comments to that post was from a guy who reacted to the standard 23andMe phrasing for a contact request of “Would you like to explore our relationship?” with: “No. No, I would like to run in the opposite direction, screaming gently.”2

Sigh. I just don’t “get” how people like this don’t “get” my interest in our family history. Forgive me here, but while I respect that people who tested with 23andMe may have done so for health reasons, I wish those who showed up in the Relative Finder — the genealogy section — were, well, genealogists.

And that “I only did health-testing” excuse isn’t even available for people who tested with Family Tree DNA. Everybody who tests with FTDNA does it for genealogy. The response rate is better — a lot better, in my experience — than it is on 23andMe, but it sure isn’t anywhere near 100%. I still have five projected third cousins who’ve never answered an email inquiry.

I don’t “get” it. What, exactly, is “creepy” about wanting to know more about our mutual past? We’re not talking about wanting to know about where you work, or when you’re going on vacation (thinking about the lastest Facebook scam of friending people to be able to burglarize their houses3 here). I’m not going to ask for your bank account information, I don’t want a copy of your birth certificate, I won’t ask for a recent photo of your kids, and I certainly don’t care what percentage of the gene for female fertility we share.

Yes, I’m a stranger to you… but not much more so than that cousin of yours you haven’t seen since you were both in diapers. I’m not inviting myself to dinner at your house, for cryin’ out loud. And presumably everybody you’re going to tell me about and everybody I’m going to tell you about is dead, and has been for years.

So do me a favor, okay? Answer your emails if you’ve tested with FTDNA and your share invitations if you’ve tested with 23andMe. That’s really not asking much. I’d be delighted to work with you so we could help each other past our genealogical brick walls.

And if that’s “creepy,” so be it.


  1. Virginia Hughes, “Family Ties,” in The Last Word on Nothing, posted 22 Mar 2012. Thanks to Blaine Bettinger for the Facebook link to this article.
  2. Ibid., comment, Ed Yong, posted 22 Mar 2012.
  3. Police: N.J. Burglary Victim Uses Facebook Conversations To Find Suspects; Arrests Made,” CBS New York ( : accessed 25 Mar 2012).
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11 Responses to Dear Genetic Cousin

  1. Excuse me, but can you get any more pretentious than this?

    This is what is so wrong about too many of the egoists in genealogy … they, like you, think there is some obligation to see life as YOU see it and want it. This, which I see as a very selfish view, is an attitude that pervades many in the genealogy and it hurts all of us.

    People have many reasons for not responding to other people (related or not) about matters as personal as family …. and to me it doesn’t get any more personal than family.

    Sure, I’d love it if everyone I reached out to responded to me. They don’t. They don’t for their reasons, which are valid to them. Me be damned. It is their right.

    We, as genealogist, have NO right to demand any action by any other person. Related or not.

    Just my two cents ….


    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I don’t see looking for contact as either pretentious or unduly demanding, Scott. I understand people may test entirely for their own reasons that have nothing to do with anyone outside of their own narrow family grouping or even just for themselves without regard to any others at all. FTDNA requires that you sign a statement agreeing that your results be shared before anybody else will ever even see that you’ve tested. No problem there at all. But why sign that release and test if you don’t mean it? I don’t get that at all. With 23andMe, it’s their whole system of forcing everybody into the same model that I don’t get.

  2. Martin Hollick says:

    At least you have matches. I’ve had my DNA out there for ten lonely years without so much as a How Do You Do? Not only am I the only genealogist in my family working on lines no one has ever worked on, but no one closely related to me is working on them either via DNA. Sad but true. I am a lone pioneer.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Ouch. Yeah, that would hurt for sure. Have you expanded your testing from YDNA to include the autosomal test (FTDNA calls it the Family Finder test)? You might find some new leads that way.

  3. Pam Reid says:

    I had my uncle take the Y-DNA test through FamilyTreeDNA to help with some gaps in our THORN(E) line. Since I bought it and the account is registered to me, I get the match emails. We have gotten quite a few matches, but alas, no additional info on the family. I got one just this past week with fantastic matches on the 25 marker test. Needless to say, I was wildly excited, then quickly that turned to major disappointment. This fantastic match is listed as anonymous with no contact info. Why pay for and take a DNA test on a genealogy site if you aren’t looking for relatives? I don’t get it either. *sigh*

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Oh Pam.. that’s almost heartbreaking, with 25 markers. Sigh… It’s beyond my ability to understand.

  4. Nancy J Netter says:

    Do you know for a fact that this person is alive?
    Are they still active in genealogy?

    I have tried to contact other reseachers, searching for them, only to find out that they had passed away.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Nancy, on 23andMe, there’s no way to get ANY information on a match unless the match responds. So no, I would have no way of knowing if the matches who haven’t responded are still alive or not. The one who declined the invitation, however…

  5. Ellen Clark says:

    I am a 23andme user and I hear you . I try to at least answer everyone back who contacts me. But it is soooo hard to find where we have a common ancestor and I don’t have the time in my life right now to do anything else but exchange my list of family names. I am a DAR member and have my roots well documented so I have a lot to share and know a great deal about my ancestry. On the positive side I have had two matches that have turned up good results. The first is from a 3rd cousin in Ireland. Turns out he is a Prof of Genetics so he gets it. We think we have figured out our common ancestor. Then a few weeks ago I noticed a 2nd cousin pop up on my page. I asked to connect and we did. He and I know exactly who our common ancestor is and we have exchanged pictures of these people. It is amazing really. Getting back to 23andme, they have to make it easier for people to figure out how they are related. I think some people don’t answer because they are frustrated

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Ellen, I’m sure you’re right about both the frustration level (people who don’t understand the challenges may give up long before you contact them) and the difficulties interposed by 23andMe. If they’d divide their model between the health testers (confidentiality rules!) and genealogy users (sharing rules!), we’d be better off I think.

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