Contacting a DNA Match - Theo Roosevelt Jr. and Calvin Coolidge

Ready to Contact Your DNA Matches? Here’s What to Say (and NOT to Say)

By Patricia Hartley

DNA testing for ancestry is more popular than ever. Since Family Tree DNA offered the first direct-to-consumer DNA test for ancestry back in 2000, more than 12 million Americans alone have been tested with a variety of companies. At least, this was the total as of mid-2018, and doesn’t take into account the potential millions of tests that were purchased over the holidays (in 2017, Ancestry alone sold 1.6 million DNA tests over the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend).

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With this many DNA results online in the various databases, chances are very, very good that you’re going to find hundreds of distant cousins when your results are processed. Depending on your test provider and the comprehensiveness of your relative’s profile, you may even be able to identify your earliest common ancestor for some of these individuals.

Maybe your excitement or curiosity about a DNA match will compel you to reach out to your new cousin to introduce yourself, compare research notes, or just learn more about a family unit that was previously unfamiliar. Most DNA services include a secure messaging option so you can send a quick note to the owner of the DNA sample (or the person who is managing the account for them) while ensuring privacy and a certain degree of anonymity.

So how should you approach this message? What should you include? How will you greet your new relative? The rules you follow in business and personal communications also apply to DNA match messages.

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Remember these basics of any good online communication first. 

  • Be polite, even if you don’t receive a response or the response you were hoping for
  • Don’t write in ALL CAPS, even if you’re excited; this is construed by the reader as you yelling at them
  • Check your spelling and grammar carefully
  • Keep your messages simple and straightforward; don’t bog your recipient down in too much information right away, but do be clear about your purpose
  • Include your name in the body of the message or end your message with a friendly closing and your name, it’s OK to use only your first name for privacy reasons at first
  • Do not continue to contact someone after 2-3 attempts if they don’t get back to you

The rest of your message, however, will vary depending on your purpose and situation.

Chose Your Recipients Carefully and, When You are Ready to Reach Out, Always Provide a Simple Introduction or Collaboration Request

The sheer volume of DNA matches you’ll receive with your DNA reports will probably prohibit you from sending a message to every single cousin. Plus, it could get really exhausting responding to those who actually reply.

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Some people may just be too distantly related to even make it worth your time. If you are hoping to reach out to a potential 5th cousin, for instance, but haven’t taken the time to try and sort out how you might be related, you may want to wait and focus on connections that are a little clearer. Remember that the more distant the connection the higher chance of a false match and the more work that will likely be involved in finding a common ancestor. Choose your recipients carefully so that you don’t waste anyone’s time.

Think about the purpose of your request and be clear about what you are requesting – this will build trust and help the person you are reaching out to respond with information that will aid everyone.

Are you hoping to find out how you and your cousin are related (discover a common ancestor)? If so, how much legwork have you already done? Can you provide clues and helpful information?

Are you hoping to get more information about a specific person or family in your tree? Be sure to let your recipient know that you are happy to share your own hard-won research by swapping facts, photos and records.

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Connecting with new DNA matches should be a give and take. Matches generally like to be contacted by people who have something to share and who are clearly invested in their own research. Simply writing every cousin on your list and asking them how they think you might be related, or requesting to view their family tree (if not available already), will yield you a good deal of non responses.

It’s good to remember that some people aren’t submitting their DNA to the service with the intention of finding new relatives. Some are looking for genetic health results or ethnicity, and others just spit in a tube because a pushy relative asked them to. You can’t know for sure why someone took a test when you send your message, but be prepared for some confused replies or no replies at all. 

Like any other correspondence, you’ll want to include a brief, informative subject line first.

Here are some poor subject lines that are more likely to get overlooked or ignored:

  • Family connection
  • We’re related!
  • Question for you

And here are some examples of good potential subject lines that will let your connection know just what you’re looking for: 

  • 2nd to 3rd Cousin AncestryDNA Match
  • DNA Match – shared great-grandparents on Ellison Side
  • Smith Family DNA connection, 4th Cousins

You’re allotted 120 characters for a subject line in Ancestry, so why not make good use of them? A subject line that better describes why you’re reaching out is much more likely to intrigue your recipient.

When you’re ready to compose your message, first take note of who manages the account–this is the person who will receive your message. You can check this information on your main results page in AncestryDNA. Profiles that are managed by another person will have a “(managed by ______)” notation to the right of the relative’s name. You can often seem a similar notation on other platforms, like MyHeritage.

If someone else manages the profile that matches yours, you could open your note like this:

“Hello, AncestryDNA indicates that I am a second or third cousin to Robert King, and I see that you manage his DNA profile.”

The account manager may very well be a relative also, but showing that you have paid attention to the details of the account and understand that you’re not messaging the DNA match will save a lot of explanation on the recipient’s part in his or her reply.

If you’re addressing the person who actually matches your DNA profile, you can dive right into your introduction:

“Hi Jim, I see from AncestryDNA that you and I are third cousins and share the same great-grandmother, Annie Mae Green.”

Or, if you don’t yet know how you’re related, try this approach:

“Hi Joe, AncestryDNA shows that we have an extremely high chance of being 1st to 2nd cousins, and we share the surnames Dalton, Langan, and Gibbons.”

Basically, your first sentence of a DNA message should tell the recipient where you’re connected or about which match you’re contacting them. Your next sentence should explain why you’re reaching out. Maybe you’re looking for confirmation or a particular bit of information about a common ancestor or need help breaking down a brick wall.

“I’ve been researching my Gibbons line for several years and have not yet identified a death date for John Gibbons, my third-great-grandfather, who was born in 1785 in County Waterford, Ireland. If you’ve found good sources for this information, I would love to hear from you.”

Or, maybe you just want to say hello.

“Since we share such a close connection I wanted to reach out and introduce myself. If you’re ever in middle Tennessee and would like to visit some of the Langan family landmarks please feel free to contact me.”

Whatever your purpose for contacting them, be as succinct and to-the-point as possible. A long message about your grandkids, recent surgeries, or bird-watching obsession should be saved for later correspondence.

What if they are your long-lost father, sister, grandmother, etc?

You may have submitted your DNA to a service for the explicit purpose of finding your biological family; this is especially true for adoptees, children with an absent or unidentified parent, or anyone who suspects that a parent may not be biologically related to them. DNA doesn’t lie, so if your results match you with someone identified as a parent/child, immediate family, or close family (AncestryDNA’s labels for the closest matches), these relationships are nearly 100% likely to be correct.

There are tons of beautiful, happy stories of families reuniting with previously-unknown siblings, half-siblings, or parents; The Genie I website lists hundreds of links to published DNA long-lost-relative stories. Of course, this is the best-case scenario.

No matter how excited you may be about a close match to a potential parent or brother, you have to remember that your DNA match may not have any idea that you exist, and finding out could be either a welcome blessing, a devastating development, or something in-between; no matter what, it’s bound to be an emotional experience. Please be sensitive to these possibilities as you write your first message.

Use subject lines that are neutral enough not to alarm the recipient. You definitely don’t want to announce your suspicions in the subject line of your message:

  • AncestryDNA Close Family Match
  • Close DNA Match – would like to explore shared relatives
  • DNA connection, possibly through Jones family

The best approach to the message itself is to be kind, tactful, and tentative:

“Hello John, My name is Judy Thomas and my AncestryDNA results indicate that biologically we are very closely related; perhaps half siblings. I would very much like to explore our connection and would love to hear from you.”

Your recipient will see the same relationship that you see on his or her DNA Match results; in AncestryDNA, if they click on your name at the top of your message, your Ancestry Profile page will show if you’re a DNA match. However, you can’t assume that they are familiar with DNA or even genealogy, so don’t include technical DNA information in your message. This can always be shared later if the individual is open to it. 

It may take your family member some time to reply, either because they haven’t checked their messages, someone else manages the account, or they’re simply trying to figure out the best way to respond to you. Resist the urge to bombard them with multiple messages; this is a surefire way to burn a bridge that hasn’t even been completely built. Be kind, and be patient. 

And keep in mind that many people will never reply. As mentioned above, countless individuals simply take tests out of passing curiosity and may not have the interest or information needed to respond. Don’t take it personally, and instead enjoy the new connections you do make. Be willing to share and you will very likely find many wonderful new tidbits about your family. 

Related:

For nearly 30 years Patricia Hartley has researched and written about the ancestry and/or descendancy of her personal family lines, those of her extended family and friends, and of historical figures in her community. After earning a B.S. in Professional Writing and English and an M.A. in English from the University of North Alabama in Florence, Alabama, she completed an M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University. She’s a member of the Alabama Genealogical Society, Association of Professional Genealogists, National Genealogical Society, International Society of Family History Writers, Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society, Natchez Trace Genealogical Society and the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review. 

Image: Theo Roosevelt Jr. [shaking hands with Calvin Coolidge] 1924. Library of Congress. Roosevelt and Coolidge were likely related through Thomas Jefferson. 

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