This post is for people new to DNA testing, particularly if you’re also new to genealogy. It’s also aimed at people dealing with "hobby genealogy" vs. people trying to contact close biological relatives in a more sensitive situation (such as if you’re an adoptee or if the DNA test has revealed a parent or close family member is not a biological relative—for help with those sensitive situations, see this post from WatershedDNA).
I’ve written similar posts about contacting DNA matches that are aimed at experienced genealogists or for people trying to get more from their DNA results. Check those out if that better describes your situation.
I’m not going to give you a click-by-click explanation of how to contact DNA matches because it varies by site and possibly the device you’re on. This post will tell you what to say, regardless of the testing company.
This post is for you if:
- You’re new to DNA testing.
- You’re not an experienced genealogist.
- You’re interested in your family history but not dealing with a sensitive situation.
- You’re looking for what to say to matches, not click-by-click instructions on how to contact them.
The suggestions I’m going to make apply to anyone but this is really all you need if you fit the criteria above. I have additional suggestions for those beyond this beginning stage and those are covered in the other posts.
I have ___ "must-include" items I think every message should cover. Sure, there are situations when it’ll be fine if you don’t include all of these but many of the matches that can help you the most NEED these items so just put them in every message.
Template for Contacting DNA Matches
Let’s start with an example message and then I’ll break it down so you can customize it.
I’m just getting started using my DNA results and your test CrazyKatGenealogist matches me (GenieNewbie) and I’d really like to learn more about our connection. I’ve looked at the attached family tree and maybe we’re related through your family from Canada. That looks like the only location we share and I don’t see any shared surnames. I’m new to genealogy so I’ve attached what family tree I have to my test. Could you take a look and see if you have an idea how we connect?
I’ve also tested at [testing company], username [username] and at GEDmatch I’m [GEDmatch id].
If you can’t look at this right now could you email me back at GenieNewbie@email.com and let me know you received my message.
Thank you so much for your help,
[your real first name]
First, because I’m going to mention this in the break-down, the response rate when ANYONE messages their matches is insanely low. Your entire strategy around what you say when you first contact a match is making it as easy (and non-sketchy) as possible so they will respond.
Your First Message to a DNA Match
Here are the general points you need to adhere to.
- Be polite
- Be quick
- Make it easy to respond (this means being clear and keeping it simple).
- Avoid making your message sound like you’re a SPAM-bot (make it sound like you wrote this message just for them, even if you used a template!)
- Avoid sounding sketchy (people forget what types of personal details they put online and some are just prone to think everyone is trying to scam them)
- Avoid sounding careless. That means edit your message (check spelling and grammar) plus some of the tips below
What to Include When You Contact a DNA Match
Now let’s break this down so you can see how you can customize the message.
1. Start with a greeting. I usually do not use a name because there are so many situations where the name you see is not the name of the person receiving the email. I do NOT recommend saying "Dear CrazyKatGenealogist" or otherwise using their username, it raises issues in lots of people’s minds. Stick with no name or at least actual names (not usernames). This relates to making your message not sketchy and not sounding careless (even if you aren’t being careless, using a username instead of a given name can sound this way).
2. If you’re a newbie, I recommend saying it upfront. If you’re not, see one of my other posts because I suggest starting your message differently so you still keep it short.
3. Tell them which test you are looking at. Do this no matter what. This is one of my "must-include" items! Many people manage multiple tests and usually it is not clear which test someone is referring to (AncestryDNA and MyHeritageDNA include a link if you click the right buttons to start your message but just the other day I had a message where the link would not work).
4. Tell them the name of the test they match to. I don’t care if it’s your actual name and you sign the message that way, tell them anyway. Also, double-check what your test is called. So many people have tested at this point, there is a good chance if you get it "sorta" right, they will find a test that "sorta" matches (has the same first or last name or a possible variation). This is also one of my "must-include" items.
5. It would be nice to include some indication if the test they match is yours, a friend’s, a relative’s, etc. including the test taker’s first name (and/or relationship to you). However, I understand this isn’t always advisable (if you’re dealing with a sensitive situation, you’re reading the wrong post—I’m talking about not advisable because you don’t’ have permission to explain the exact relationship or it would be too complicated). At least say either "my test" or "a friend’s test" or "I’m helping [username]." Tell them if it’s your test or not, how much more detail is your call. Whenever you can, include the real first name of the test taker to make it easier to refer to them. Sound approachable and not needy or sketchy.
6. Your "plea." Say exactly what you are looking for. Why are you contacting this match and what do you want from them? However, keep it quick and clear. Assume they are busy and will only help if they can hit reply and quickly write an answer. You can provide more detail later but you need to be clear why you’re contacting them. I’ll talk more about this below since there are a few likely variations of this.
7. If you’ve tested other places or have close relatives they (could) match who have tested other places, you can include those details. Only include this if the message doesn’t get too long and have permission to share other people’s details (you could list you other testing places and usernames under your signature to keep the message short).
8. Ask them to immediately reply and by email, including the email address. The AncestryDNA messaging service is notoriously finicky. People have reported messages not arriving for months or ever. Whether this is true or just matches not checking their messages, you have no way to know. Part of the problem with a messaging service is you have no idea if your message was received. With email, it might have gone to SPAM or they ignored it but if the address no longer works, you’ll get a message. The messaging services at AncestryDNA and MyHeritageDNA will not tell you if the email address no longer works and there’s no way to tell if there’s a glitch or just the match not checking their messages.
9. Sign your message with your real first name so they can reply back to a person. It is really hard to write replies to vague messages where you can’t tell who the test taker is or the name of the person you’re emailing with. Some people share an email address. Some people share their DNA account (instead of a test being managed by someone else, everyone just logs in as the test taker). Add to this the privacy setting with online trees and it can get really confusing.
Remember to make it easy for your match to respond. I don’t just mean they hit a button to start responding. I mean make it easy for them to know what to write back. Have a clear reason you are contacting them and a name to reply to (as well as clarity on whether the matching test is yours or someone else’s).
10. The subject line (not shown in the example). I use "DNA match" for nearly every subject line on messaging services. If you’re emailing I’d mention the site ex. "FTDNA match"). I look at this very differently from the advice from others I’ve seen about contacting matches.
I personally tend to be contacting people where I either don’t know where the match is in either my tree or their tree or I know it’s going to be very far back (hey, I do this for a living and specialize in historical cases, I’ve gotten good at narrowing it down even for distant matches). I don’t want to put anything in the subject line where the person will say "I’m not interested in that line" or "that’s not my family tree" (even if it is). Your subject needs to indicate it’s about DNA. It is then your choice whether you want to be more specific. Also, not everyone will see a long subject line on the device they are using so I don’t recommend having key words at the end of a long subject.
Do NOT leave the subject blank or make it too vague ("DNA" makes it just past vague). You don’t want it to read like SPAM, either.
More What to Say to Your DNA Match
Tell Your DNA Match Why You’re Contacting Them (#6)
Let’s look at some more options for your "plea" because this is often the most confusing part to know what to say.
First, I’ve very rarely had someone message me and mention a surname and that is the surname we share. My maiden name is Patterson and that’s the most common surname people say we share—and often they actually match my mom’s test, or her mom’s test or even someone in my husband’s family. No Pattersons in any of those trees.
I hate the fixation on "finding a familiar surname" because it’s highly unlikely to work. It does work sometimes but don’t get fixated on surnames. That means, if you don’t see a likely connection, don’t worry about mentioning a shared surname.
I think, but don’t know, that mentioning a surname someone isn’t interested in gives them an excuse to not respond (everyone’s busy!). I avoid mentioning a shared surname unless I really think it will help.
Other Ways to Narrow Down the Shared Branch
With that said, do try and mention where you see a potential connection IF you can narrow it down. For example, Let’s say your tree consists of a branch from Canada and a branch from Germany and a branch from South America (and no other known locations). If you look at someone’s tree and they have family only from Canada and Australia, you can mention that maybe your Canadian branch is where the match is (it’s possible it might match either of their branches). If they’re willing to look at your tree they can look for those Canadian ancestors instead of having no clue what to look at first.
My entire family is from Georgia (the state in the southeast U.S.) so I NEVER get to use location to narrow down my tree but it is unlikely I match to non-U.S. branches in other people’s tree (mostly I match other people where their whole tree goes back to the southeast U.S. so I rarely get to use location for myself-but I do for clients so I know it works).
Remember, ideally you can narrow down which branch in your tree AND narrow down which branch in their tree. If you can narrow down one OR the other, it’s helpful so don’t just fixate on your tree or their tree.
What If You Don’t Know How You’re Related?
If you’re in a situation where you have no clue where the connection is, just say so. I mainly work with my great-aunt’s test and I use my 4 Buckets Technique (a type of clustering). That means when someone matches her test, I often can tell which branch they likely match to. If the person asks "do you have any idea how we’re connected" that is a question I can answer.
Even though you are just getting started, your matches may not be.
I would answer the direct question "do you have any idea how we’re connected" but I’d have no idea what to reply back if they didn’t tell me why they contacted me.
Remember to make it easy for them to respond! Tell them why you are contacting them and ask a direct question, if you can.
I have had many messages where I had no clue why they contacted me. I have a tree attached to every test so I couldn’t provide more family information of that type. I usually use the GEDmatch id as the name or in the tree so I gave them that. Did they want family photos (for which part of the family)? Did they just want to chat (about what?). Be specific but brief. There are many things you could be asking for.
If you are contacting a match to get a family tree from them, try and ask for information, not a family tree. This is tough because you don’t want it to sound like you’re fishing for overly personal information. I tend to ask for "family tree information" but as more non-genealogists are tested, I’m going to try and find an equally brief, non-intrusive way to say this. (If you’re new, I’d love to hear what wording resonates with you, feel free to leave a comment with suggestions).
You need to take responsibility to build the trees for matches who are willing to share information but aren’t inclined to build their own tree. If you’re new to genealogy, this can be hard. However, better to gather that information when it’s offered even if you don’t have the skill to build the tree, yet.
Another Suggestion (More on #8)
If you really want to use your DNA results, I highly recommend having an email address just for DNA use. This allows you to deal with all the messages that have arrived when you have the time (instead of skipping over them when you’re too busy and missing them when you come back later). Only do this if checking another email is convenient for you. Otherwise you’ll become one of those matches that doesn’t respond!
You MUST Include This.
Finally, remember to be polite. Don’t be pushy. Be thankful for whatever you do get (because most matches just won’t respond at all).
Above all, realize that for some people, taking a DNA test turned into a personal tragedy. They may have discovered something that tore their world apart. Even if discovering a close relative wasn’t a biological relative wouldn’t devastate you, it might do that to someone else. Be compassionate because you don’t know what is going on in your match’s life. Even if the DNA test didn’t trigger a negative event, they might just have bigger life events happening, good or bad.
Try, try again? Or Not?
When you start to consider if a DNA test caused a negative event in someone’s life, it doesn’t seem so clear if you should try and contact them if you don’t hear from them.
First, I can’t say it enough times…
Response rates from DNA matches are insanely low. They are much lower when a messaging service (AncestryDNA and MyHeritageDNA) is involved.
Yes, you can send an additional message if you don’t get a response from the first one but don’t send them very close together.
Retrying with Matches through a Messaging Service
With the messaging services, people often don’t get those because they haven’t logged on in so long (if they log-in, they will see your message then). Assume something is going on in their life that needs your compassion. Remember, be polite.
With a messaging service, I recommend (if you even want to), send a quick "did you get my previous message?" after three months (yes, 3 MONTHS) and then no more than one or two additional follow-ups no closer together than three months (that would be after six months and nine months but after a year is also good). I’ve had a number of people respond one, three, or six months later, or even a year.
Remember, these are recommendations for first contacting a match. I get busy and don’t realize how long it’s been since I contacted people so I don’t mind a friendly reminder from a DNA match. Once you’ve had a first contact so you know the person is willing to help (and not reeling from some surprise DNA results), you might follow-up in a few weeks or a month (I recommend exchanging email addresses to avoid the potential failure of messaging services but it’s your and your match’s choice).
Retrying with Matches via Email
If you’re directly emailing, you could follow-up after a month and then three or six months. With email, I really only recommend following up if this is a match that seems very important. As I said, people just don’t see the messaging-service messages. With email, they either can’t be bothered to respond or something else (potentially negative) is going on in their life.
I’d hate to keep emailing someone who had their life torn apart by a DNA test and they just want to forget (with the messaging service they can just never log-in again so it’s not your problem—but don’t send a million retries in case they were just busy and do log-in later and see how impatient you were, that won’t help!). If the email address is a DNA specific address, I would follow-up. The DNA test didn’t tear their life apart (most likely). They may just be busy, hopefully with good things.
Remember, be polite. This is another human being you are dealing with. You have no idea what is going on in their life. Yes, not getting a response is frustrating. Don’t spread that frustration to your matches (or on social media). You’ve probably had an experience with a negative Nellie and it didn’t make you feel any better and it certainly didn’t make you share with them or help them.
Working with DNA Matches
DNA isn’t useful without information from your matches. Just matching them isn’t enough, unfortunately.
Sadly, genealogy has always had a few people that just won’t share. DNA has introduced lots of people who aren’t genealogists at all and many take a test and disappear when they don’t get an instant family tree.
You are going to have lots of matches that won’t respond and some that respond only to refuse to tell you anything.
Be polite. Also be considerate of people’s time and sensitive to any issues they may have (both negative surprises they may have gotten but also their personal privacy concerns).
You can use your DNA results despite the lack of responses. Take responsibility that if you want to make a discovery using DNA, you’ll have to do the work. It’s OK that you’re just getting started. By following the general guidelines for contacting matches, you’ll start to gather the information you need. You’ll also run into some matches that teach you something new or point you in the right direction.
Keep being polite and be thankful for any responses. Keep learning as you go. It’s amazing the good things you can learn from the matches that do respond. The fun of genealogy isn’t the destination, it’s the journey. Contacting DNA matches is just one part of that journey, whether it’s frustrating or fun. Keep going.
Source: The Occasional Genealogist https://www.theoccasionalgenealogist.com/
Posted On: April 20, 2021 at 01:57PM