Saying Hello in the DNA World

Hey Baby, what’s your sign?  Remember that?  I surely do.  It was the worst introductory, aka “pickup line” ever!

If someone asked me that today, after rolling my eyes of course, I’d just have to show them a double helix on my Kerchner R1b piniphone or maybe just look at them deadpan and say “R1b,” M269” or “J1c2f.” If they know what means, well, there might be hope…

Ok, so what DO you say to someone with whom you match on your DNA?  How do you appropriately say “hello?”

When you receive a match from a vendor or via tools like GedMatch, what do you say to that new match that will elicit a response that might be useful and not make you look either like an idiot or predatory in the process? In part, that has to do with what kind of DNA match it is, meaning Y, mitochondrial or autosomal, and in part, how you ask for information.

So, first, let’s talk about some basics of how to obtain good responses and secondly, let’s look at each type of match.

The Basics

I know some of these basics sounds, well, really basic, but I wouldn’t have included them if I didn’t receive a lot of e-mails from people who obviously don’t understand these basic communications “good manners.”

  1. Do use capitals and punctuation. If you don’t you’re conveying the message to the recipient that they don’t matter enough to bother constructing a complete sentence. E-mails like this are apt to be immediately deleted.
  2. Don’t put the entire question in the subject line. These get deleted too.
  3. Include the person’s name who you match. Don’t assume that the person whose e-mail is on the kit is the person who tested.  Many people manage multiple (as in many) kits.
  4. Don’t write “dear match” e-mails and copy several people at once.
  5. Title the e-mail with something relevant like “DNA Match to Robert Doe at Family Tree DNA.”  You don’t want your e-mail to wind up in their spam filter.
  6. Include the basics of the match including the match’s name on the kit (or kit number) and the company (or service like GedMatch) where the match occurred.  I always add the test type as well, and if the match is particularly close.
  7. Don’t say, “Can you tell me how we’re related?” without giving any other information. That comes across as sounding a bit “entitled” and the response it gets from the receiver generally isn’t positive.
  8. Do not tell your life story. They won’t read it and they’ll delete it.
  9. Include friendly, short, concise basic information, depending on the kind of test.
  10. I always end my communications with a question for them to answer and a short, positive comment.

Y-DNA

Y-DNA tests are between males, so if you’re a female, you might want to mention that you’re the custodian for the kit for your brother, or father, John Doe. Give basic surname and lineage information for the Doe line.

Here’s an example of a contact e-mail for Y DNA:

Dear Robert Doe,

I’m the custodian for the DNA kit at Family Tree DNA of John Doe, my father. I noticed that he matches Robert Doe, which I presume is you, on the Y DNA test at 67 markers with only one mutation.  In addition, these two men carry the same surname which suggest a common ancestor.  I’ve also checked and you two don’t seem to match on the Family Finder test, so perhaps the common ancestor between you and my father is a few generations back in time.

Here is my father’s direct Doe lineage:

y pedigree

As you can see, I’m stuck with Martin Doe in Virginia. I’m hoping that our match might be helpful in getting beyond this brick wall.

Who is your oldest Doe ancestor and where were they located?

Thank you for your time. Here’s hoping we can find our common ancestor or at least some hints!

Jane Doe

Mitochondrial DNA

Mitochondrial DNA is a little more challenging genealogically, because the surnames change with every generation. Therefore, locations become very important clues in terms of finding a common ancestor.

Here’s an example of a mitochondrial DNA contact e-mail:

Dear Susie Smith,

I’m the custodian for the DNA kit at Family Tree DNA for my mother, Barbara Jones. I noticed that mother and Susie Smith, which I presume is you, share mitochondrial DNA at the full sequence level with no mutations difference.  This means that our common relative could be in recent generations, or maybe further back in time.  Since you’ve both also taken the Family Finder test, I noticed that you also match in the 2nd to 4th cousin range, meaning you and mother could potentially share great-grandparents to great-great-great-grand-parents. That could possibly be from Barbara Brown, Ellen Green or Mary on my pedigree chart below.

Here is my mother’s matrilineal line as far back as I have information:

mtDNA pedigree

Of course, it’s possible that our common ancestor is further back in time, but I’m hopeful that some of these names or locations might look familiar or be where your matrilineal family members are from too.

Do you see anything here that looks promising in terms of a common ancestor or location?  Where is your most distant maternal ancestor from?

I look forward to hearing from you. Maybe we can solve this puzzle together.

Jane Jones

Autosomal DNA

Autosomal DNA is, of course, genealogically more complex than either Y or mitochondrial DNA in that your matches can be from any of your family lines. That also means this test is full of potential as well, but it’s more difficult to provide your matches with enough information to obtain a useful response without overwhelming them.  With three different vendors plus GedMatch, a one-size-fits-all introductory letter doesn’t work

The first thing I do is to see if I can tell how this person may match me.

For example, my mother has taken the Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA as well, so the first thing I check on any match is to see if that person matches both me and my mother. If so, then that match is through my mother’s side of the tree.

This is easy to do with the ICW (in common with) button at Family Tree DNA.  The ICW button looks like crossed arrows and is blue, below.

Joy compare

The list of matches returned will either show my mother or it won’t.

If the person doesn’t match my mother, and Joy doesn’t, I see who else they do match in addition to me.  For example, let’s see who Joy matches that I match as well.

Joy ICW

I can tell based on the ICW cousins that Joy and I both match that indeed, this match is on my father’s side and that it’s in the Vannoy line. That’s actually very helpful, because it helps me provide my match with some direction and gives us someplace to go.  This also illustrates the benefit of testing every cousin you can find!

Here’s an example of a Family Finder contact e-mail:

Dear Joy,

I notice that I have a match to Joy Smith, which I presume is you, at Family Tree DNA on the Family Finder test.  Our connection is estimated to be at the 2nd to 4th cousin level. This is exciting because it means we may be able to find our common ancestor.

Based on the fact that you match several of my cousins, including Stacy, Charlene, Christopher, Debbie and 3 Vannoy cousins, our common ancestor seems to be either in the Vannoy line, from which we all descend, or a common ancestral line to all of these cousins.

I’m attaching a copy of my father’s pedigree chart in pdf format so that it’s easily readable. Please note that his grandmother was Elizabeth Vannoy and take a look at her lineage. There is an index in the back of the document so you can easily scan to see if anyone looks familiar.

Are any of her ancestors your ancestors too?

I’m excited to see if we can make a family connection. I look forward to hearing from you,

Roberta Estes

Of course, if you’re sending a message to someone you match at either 23andMe or Ancestry.com, it would read a little bit differently because their tools are different from those provided at Family Tree DNA. For those vendors, my contact verbiage reads somewhat differently, in part, because my mother’s DNA is not at either of those vendors and I have much less flexibility in terms of tools and usage.

For example, at 23andMe the contact request is “blind” and you can’t see anything about matches until the contact and DNA sharing requests are accepted. This is changing shortly at 23andMe, but exactly how all of this will work is uncertain.  Also, not all 23andMe kits can be transferred to Family Tree DNA.

At Ancestry, they have no chromosome browser, so you can’t look at any comparative chromosome information. You can see who else you match in common though, in addition to the Circles.

The message is also different because both Ancestry and 23andMe contacts must be made through their internal message system where you cannot attach files and you are limited in terms of message size. Also, remember to sign your full real name.  Your screen name may not be the same and that’s all the recipient will see in the message they receive through the vendor.  I also include an e-mail address.

Here’s an example of a 23andMe or Ancestry contact message.

I notice that we are a DNA match. That’s great news.  I believe that we may match through the Estes line, but I’m not positive.  I have a number of Estes cousins who have tested from this line at Family Tree DNA that you might match as well.  You can upload your results to Family Tree DNA and see your matches for $39 instead of retesting, which is a real value.  You can also join the Estes project at Family Tree DNA.  Many of my cousins have uploaded their results to GedMatch too.  Have you uploaded your DNA results to http://www.GedMatch.com yet?  It’s a free service provided by genealogists for genealogists and allows people who have tested at different companies to compare their kits for matching.  I’d love to send you my pedigree chart, my GedMatch kit number, provide instructions for transferring your kit to Family Tree DNA and GedMatch, or answer questions.  You can e-mail me at xxxxxx@att.net.  I look forward to seeing if we can find our common ancestor.  Do you have any Estes ancestors in your tree?  Genealogy sure has gotten exciting since DNA has been added as a tool.

Roberta Estes

If I can make this contact more personal, I do. For example, if we share a common ancestor in a tree or a Circle at Ancestry, I always include that information.  I tend, in general to get more responses where I can tell the recipient at least something about how we do or might match, even if it’s nonspecific.

If you want to read more about autosomal DNA contacts tips for success, you can read this more extensive contact article here and one for adoptees here.

Making the contact takes very little effort. Not all contact requests work, of course, but I’ve found some real gems in those that do.

Let me know in the comments what contact techniques work well for you.

Have fun!!!

27 thoughts on “Saying Hello in the DNA World

  1. With regards to autosomal contacts, I follow a procedure similar to yours except that I have no parents left and who were never tested so I rely on comparisons with my first cousins on both sides. Unfortunately, both of them often show up as in-common with the person I am looking at. When I do 1 to 1 comparisons, if such is possible, at Gedmatch they match the same people on different chr. These cousins also share a few small segments when compared to each other. This is likely due to Ashkenazi endogamy but so far I haven’t been able to figure out where or when the two lines crossed.

    Do you have any specific recommendations about other things to do before making contact with someone who appears to match both your maternal and paternal lines? Or particular information its important to include in the message?

  2. Roberta,
    Excellent suggestions as always 🙂 Are your Vannoy folks from Ashe or Wilkes County, NC (or surrounding areas) by any chance? If so, we might be related 🙂
    Barbara

  3. Good suggestions, but the part about capitals is quite difficult for someone w/ handicaps who types tediously w/ one hand. Sometimes the tablet, or whatever, will add caps. Guess we cannot expect understanding on the part of contacts. Or maybe adding a cut and paste apology?

  4. I like (and follow!) most of your rules but I don’t follow your rule not to copy several people at once. With autosomal I’m usually working a triangulated group where everybody shares the same ancestor. In those cases I do like to send one message to the entire group, encouraging everyone to REPLY-ALL so that we can have a conversation about the possible common ancestor(s). And I attach an ADSA report that shows the group from my perspective. I’ve found that by including several people, sometimes we get a good exchange of ideas going.

    • I agree Don with a triangulated group. What I was really referring to was someone who copies pretty much all of their matches at once:) Triangulated groups do indeed have something in common.

  5. Thanks for yet another great “How To” article. Since you mentioned the ICW (In Common With) tool on FTDNA, I have to ask… what good is the “Not in Common With” tool? Do you ever use it? Just curious…

    • Yes, I’ve used it to find the matches that do not also match my mother. So in essence they match my father or are by chance. My mother’s DNA is in the system but my father’s isn’t. Other people may have other uses for it too.

  6. In the subject line, I put: DNA Cousin. I attach our one-to-one comparison (if at Gedmatch) showing the segment/s and chromo/s on which we match. Or if there are several others, I attach a shot of the chromo showing the overlapping segments of all with whom I am trying to form a TG. E.g., if Mary and I have a tree match, I ask the others if they have that ancestral couple in their trees and sometimes send them a shot from that portion of my tree because the TG match/s can be upstream or downstream, or on a branch. At any rate, I ask to see their tree and if it is at Ancestry, ask their username; If their tree is private, I ask to be invited, and give them my username to invite me. All of this varies depending on what I am trying to accomplish. I think if we send them a screen shot/attachment they might think we are more knowledgeable/credible, and they are more apt to respond. Just guessing.

    I end by saying I hope they have time to respond, but if not, I understand. My experience is that women are more apt to respond than men.

    Although I have tested at all 3 companies, I only use the tools and my 1500 matches at Gedmatch, all of which are over 10 cMs. Also, it seems if matches have taken the time to upload to Gedmatch, they are more serious………

  7. Another spot on article Roberta! ! It can be frustrating to get emails that you can do nothing with because no basic info is included, such as who someone matches or how. Education is key…Thx for helping educate us all! 🙂

  8. For Mitochodiral DNA, I have very few matches (8 for FMS and 10 for HVR1+2). So instead of giving my matrilineal line, I summarize what we know about each match’s last ancestress, how they cluster together geographically, and point out that everything so far hint to an origin in Inverness-shire, Scotland. Then I inquire about their own last known ancestress.

    It doesn’t take long, three matches have the same ancestress, three are stuck in the same record black hole, two are isolated geographically and the last one doesn’t answer his mail. Nothing too long, about 2 to 4 lines for each. I have a 100% rate of answer so far (I haven’t tried the one who doesn’t answer yet).

    I only share my matrilineal line when the match doesn’t have a tree, so I’m not sure if they have put the right name in the last known ancestress box.

  9. One quibble, Roberta. You advise “do not tell your life story”. If by that you mean “be brief about it”, I totally agree. But I usually state in one or two sentences who I am, where I presently live, where and when I was born, and why I am doing genealogical research. My response rate is about 75%.

  10. Great post Roberta, I added it to the DNA_NEWBIE FAQ. One small quibble. If you have a parent tested at 23andme, it will mark matches that also match that parent with a P or an M.

    Also I prefer to send the URL of my tree at WIKItree rather than attach a big file.

  11. Being of Scottish descent and a Stuart, we have been offered a DNA test that is said to be particularly for those of Stuart descent. it is ScotlandDNA but they seem to be offering much the same as FamilytreeDNA to which my sister and I have already joined. Can you please give any light on this latest offer of DNA testing?
    Regards
    Nancye Cowan and Beth Murray

    • I don’t think it would hurt anything to take that test, but ScotlandDNA is well known for their outlandish claims. Just don’t take that test instead of one of the other more respectable tests.

  12. Like Don, I work with Triangulated Groups. I usually include a phrase like “I’ve already done the DNA analysis, and we are all cousins. So this is only about genealogy now – finding our Common Ancestor”. I use this phrasing whenever I can, because the vast majority of our Matches don’t understand the genetic part, and don’t want to. I think it helps us get the genealogy conversation going.

  13. Roberta – thank you for this post. I have been on the sending and receiving end of messages which made assumptions, could have provided some direction or created more questions than answers.

    Your examples of well crafted, nicely thought-out introductions are great ideas. Thank you again.

    The only maddening piece to this is that I have spent countless hours creating these wonderful introductions only to receive a response like “I don’t anything” or they go on and on and on about this king or that soldier or the Mayflower, or the UDC/SCV, DAR/SAR, etc.

    Okay — venting done.

    Thank you for all you do to help us all understand DNA, how to be a private eye, and now hwo to communicate better.

  14. I have run across an interesting problem with Ancestry. I had tested at the other two sites and decided to go ahead and do ancestry. I have now been contacted by a listing on Ancestry that will not show up on Gedmatch, and two on Gedmatch that will not show up on Ancestry (luckily, one is also on the other two so we are digging together). I am not too crazy about Ancestry’s testing methods.

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