In the first part of this two part series, Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – What Now?, we talked about the different kinds of things you can do when you receive your autosomal DNA test results from either Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or 23andMe. There are, in general, 4 types of goals that people have when they test their autosomal DNA – if they have any specific goals:
- I want to meet people I’m related to.
- I want to confirm my genealogy is correct.
- I want to find new ancestors.
- I want to map my chromosomes to my ancestors.
Regardless of which of these goals you had when you tested, or have since developed, now that you know what is possible – most of the options are going to require you to do something – often contacting your matches.
One thing that doesn’t happen is that your new genealogy is not delivered to you gift wrapped and all you have to do is open the box, untie the bow around the scroll, and roll it down the hallway. That only happens on the genealogy TV shows:)
Because of the different ways the various vendors have implemented their DNA matching software, there are different reasons why you might want to contact your matches.
At 23andMe, you cannot send messages to your matches or share your matching DNA segments unless you obtain permission from each match to first communicate with them and then to share matching DNA segments, which can be one or two separate permissions. 23andMe has an internal messaging system that facilitates you sending a permission request to your matches. Personalized messages work best. If permission is granted, you can then begin a dialogue about common ancestors and how you might match that person.
Family Tree DNA
At Family Tree DNA, you are provided with the e-mail address of everyone that you match within each person’s privacy selections. Participants can upload their GEDCOM files, create family trees and enter a list of ancestral surnames. You can search by current or ancestral surname. The most common reason to contact someone you match at Family Tree DNA is if you are a match to them and they have not uploaded or created a family tree.
Ancestry also uses an internal messaging system. The most common reason to contact a DNA match at Ancestry is if you match someone, and especially if you share a shakey leaf hint with them, meaning you have a common ancestor in your trees – but your match’s tree is private and you can’t see who that common ancestor might be.
If you upload your results to www.gedmatch.com, a free (donation based) site, you can then match your results to people who tested at all 3 companies – if they also have uploaded their results. People provide their e-mails when uploading and configuring their accounts at GedMatch. People who use GedMatch are often the most excited and “into” autosomal DNA matching and therefore, the most likely to contact matches.
Regardless of where you are matching, it’s important to make that first communication attempt count. At 23andMe, if your match declines contact, you can’t communicate with them. If they don’t reply, you can delete that first contact attempt and try again, but your attempts are limited – so you really do have to make them count.
Here are some helpful hints and approaches that do and don’t work well. Your goal is to obtain a helpful response, so you want to position yourself in the best possible light to get that response.
A faux pas may kill your chances, so let’s start out with what not to do, and why, then we’ll look at how to make your communications a winner!
- Don’t send group e-mails to everyone you match saying, “Hi, we all match. Can you tell me how?” Guess what? You won’t get many or any replies and you’ll have irritated all of your matches in one fell swoop. This is considered DNA spamming. Think about what you are writing before you press that send button.
- Don’t say things like this to people: “Hi, I’m guessing (or hoping) that you’ve mapped your (or your cousin’s) chromosomes and you can just tell me how we are related.” When I told this person I have not mapped my cousin’s chromosomes – they had the bad judgment to ask me when I might get around to it.
- Don’t provide just a few surnames and ask if they are related. Most of your matches will be more than 2 or 3 generations back in the tree, so the answer is likely going to be “no,” or no answer at all.
- Don’t offer to send them an ancestry invite. That means they have to sort through your entire tree to find a match, AND Ancestry will attach your tree to their list forever. Give the e-mail recipient something to work with in the e-mail itself. Don’t make your problem their problem or they won’t reply. The more work they have to do to reply, the less chance they will.
- Don’t send multiple e-mails with dribs and drabs of information in each one. If you have something to share, put it together logically and concisely in an e-mail and send one.
- Don’t assume that someone of a different ethnicity isn’t related to you.
- Don’t assume a particular surname is indicative of a person’s entire genealogical background.
- Don’t convey an entitlement attitude. Remember, you are asking them to take a few minutes of their time to help you.
- Don’t assume that all of your matches are from the US, or that English is their primary language – so use full state names and locations. The good news is that more and more people are testing from around the world.
- Don’t send messages in all caps.
- Don’t send messages with misspellings, incorrect grammar or abbreviated texting language. Translated, this means your phone or i-pad with autocorrect is probably not a good idea.
- Don’t send the entire request in the title of the message. Yes, people do this.
- Don’t send a message with a title like “hi there.” It’s likely to go to the spam folder or be over looked or ignored. Instead, title each message with the name of the test, the testing company and whose DNA you are writing about. In other words, something like this: “Autosomal DNA Match at Family Tree DNA to John Doe”
- Don’t just send the “canned” request message at 23andMe. Send a personal note. If you have an online tree, include that link. If you notice you have ancestors from the same part of the world, or country, tell them. If you match their DNA, tell them. Some people send match requests because they notice a common surname. In other words, try to find some common ground to start a conversation.
- Don’t dash off a hurried, half-baked, partially complete message. It shows and will be reflected in the responses you do, and don’t, receive.
- Don’t expect others to do your work for you. Recently, I received a match contact and when I asked the sender for the name of the person they matched, they told me they couldn’t remember, they had sent out a “mass mailing,” and asked me to check my kits and see if there were matches to them. Seriously? They also didn’t tell me the testing company name, nor the test type. Three e-mails later, I still don’t know the name of the person they matched. Guess what. Delete! Make it easy for your matches to help you and don’t waste their time by only providing partial information.
- Read your matches profiles if they have provided one. It shows you took the time to read what they provided, and may give you some common ground out the door. “I see we both have ancestors from the Netherlands,” is a good icebreaker, for example.
- Address the e-mail to the person using their name if it’s available. In other words, begin, “Hi Joe” not just “Hi.” Do not assume a gender. Names can be deceiving. My name is not deceiving, Roberta, but I can’t tell you how many e-mails I receive to Robert or “Mr. Estes.” This tells me they didn’t pay attention.
- Do use capital letters and punctuation. Otherwise, you’re telling the person on the receiving end they aren’t important enough to bother with – and they will likely treat your request in kind.
- Enter information about yourself in your profile at the vendors, including your country of origin.
- Upload a photo of yourself into your profile at the vendor so that people can see you. This makes you seem more like a real person and they may look at you for family resemblance. Probably shouldn’t upload a photo that might be controversial or off-putting if your goal is to maximize response.
- Link your tree to your DNA results (Ancestry) or upload a Gedcom file (Family Tree DNA.) 23andMe is more challenging since their collaboration with My Heritage which is a subscription service. Most people simply put a link to their public tree someplace in their profile information at 23andMe.
- Provide your name and kit number or other identifying information in all correspondence – including the first e-mail.
- Include kit numbers (GedMatch) and/or names (Family Tree DNA) that you’re matching. Many people manage multiple kits for family members and if they have to go and look for you in their kits’ matches, they won’t. Don’t make the recipient have to guess at any part of the equation. Say something like this, “Hi, I match John Smith’s autosomal DNA test at Family Tree DNA and you are his e-mail contact…”
- Tell them where you tested and where you are matching them. “Hi, I tested at Ancestry and downloaded by kit to GedMatch where I’m kit number A100007. I’m matching kit F9141, Jane Doe, where you are listed as the contact.” Be sure to get the name of the testing company right. Today, someone told me the test was through “Family Search,” who, of course, does not do DNA testing.
- If you are matching on a Y or mitochondrial DNA test, tell them at what level you’re matching. Otherwise, they have to search through each level to find you. On mitochondrial DNA, if you and they both tested to the full sequence level, but you’re only matching on the HVR1 level, it’s not nearly as compelling or interesting as if you match at the full sequence level with no mutations difference. So, tell them, “I’m a match to John Doe at Family Tree DNA at the full mitochondrial level, with no mutations difference. Maybe we can find our common ancestor. My direct mitochondrial line is….”
- If you are matching at GedMatch and you lowered the match threshold from the default, tell them. Better yet, don’t lower the threshold, at least not for initial comparisons.
- Make replying to your query as easy as possible. You stand a much better chance of getting a reply. The more work you make them do, the less chance you’ll get a reply.
- Include your full name and e-mail address if you are using Ancestry’s or 23andMe’s message systems.
- Get your facts straight. I recently received an e-mail from someone who told me that we matched on 21% of our DNA and one segment. I knew that was impossible because 21% is in the half sibling range and if you’re a half sibling – you will match on a whole lot more than one segment. If you don’t pay attention and get your facts straight, it’s less likely that the person you are contacting will take you seriously.
- Accept contact requests if you tested at 23andMe and receive a contact or sharing request, and be sure to share genomes so that you can see how you match and use their comparison tools like their Family Inheritance: Advanced.
- Include a very brief, maybe two sentence summary about yourself in contact requests. Something like. “It appears we may match on my father’s side which is primarily from Appalachia, which means they were Scotch-Irish and British before that” or “My maternal heritage is from Scandinavia, so the names may not look familiar to you. My mother’s family is from the area near Stockholm.” Do not tell them your life story or ramble. You’ll lose them.
- Send a pedigree chart (preferably with an index) in pdf format if you’re using e-mail or a link to a tree. I have a pedigree chart for my mother’s side and my father’s side. I can tell which side they match because my mother has tested as well. One of the best tools I have ever received with a query is shown below. It was sent as a spreadsheet, which made it incredibly easy for me to sort, but wouldn’t work for everyone. It could be sent as a pdf file as well, and is very easy to scan for surnames and locations. I immediately liked this person and absolutely knew they were serious and we stood a chance of making a genealogy connection. (Click on the image to make larger in a separate window.)
- Take the time to learn about autosomal DNA, matching and what it means. Aside from the many articles on this blog which you can find by using the key search word “autosomal,” here are four additional resources for you:
- If you’re adopted or searching for an unknown parents or grandparent, visit www.dnaadoption.com.
- If you have a blog or genealogy webpage, include that information, maybe below your signature.
- If you’re serious about maximizing your opportunities for success with genetic genealogy, you’ll want to test at all 3 companies, Family Tree DNA (Y, mtDNA and autosomal), Ancestry and 23andMe. Family Tree DNA facilitates reduced cost file transfers from Ancestry and from 23andMe if you tested before Dec. 2013 (when 23andMe changed their chip.) They all have their strong and weak points – but the bottom line is that you’ll want to fish in all three ponds. You’ll also want to download your results from one of those companies, preferably Family Tree DNA or Ancestry, to www.gedmatch.com, a site that facilitates comparison of data from the various companies and provides some great tools. GedMatch is a contribution site, so don’t forget to donate. Some of their Tier 1 tools require a minimal subscription of $10 a month, which is well worth it if you are serious. Ask your matches if they have downloaded their data to GedMatch and provide your kit number there.
- Be courteous and gracious. Say please and thank you. You’d be amazed how many people say neither.
- Share this article with eager newbies who need a little direction. Most newbies aren’t going to find this article before shooting off that e-mail in their initial excitement to an entire group of matches. By helping them to better focus their efforts, you’ll be helping yourself too. Most newbies have no idea what they’ve just gotten themselves into!
Acknowledgements: Thanks to contributors in the ISOGG Facebook group for helping to flesh out these tips for success.