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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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