An open letter to my DNA cousins

Talk to me, please!

Dear DNA cousins,

You know who you are.

johnny_automatic_girl_prayingYou’re the ones who’ve recently tested with 23andMe. Your results have only just come in within the last little while.

One of you is projected to be The Legal Genealogist‘s second cousin. I know you’re female, and your mitochondrial haplogroup is J1c8.

I first saw you as my match in April and, except for my genealogy buddy and first cousin Paula and my nephew, you were my closest match ever on 23andMe. So I immediately sent you an invitation to share information:

Hi! Just logged in to 23andMe tonight and see that we’re projected to be perhaps as close as second cousins! I’d love to share information and see if we can identify our common ancestors. My father was a German immigrant, my mother’s family entirely from the US south (she was born in Texas). Hope to hear from you soon!1

And I haven’t heard from you.

That was really disappointing.

Then just this past week I logged in to 23andMe and there was another match appearing for the first time in my results. This time, the system projects you — my new cousin-match — to be potentially as close as a first cousin. I know you’re also female, and your mitochondrial haplogroup is I1a1.

Once again, except for my known first cousin and my nephew, you’re now my closest DNA match at 23andMe, and I shot you off a sharing request too:

Hello, there! 23andMe is showing us as very close relatives — maybe as close as first cousins! So… since I don’t know of any first cousins who’ve decided to test, I’d love to chat and compare notes. My direct email is (removed here to keep the spammers away).2

And I haven’t heard from you either.

Now I realize that there are a lot of reasons why a match might not leap onto the keyboard to respond instantly, and five days in your case, my new potential first cousin, isn’t very long. And I’m trying very hard to be patient.

But I’m not succeeding very well.

In my world, five days is practically forever. Remember the poster of the two vultures sitting on the branch and one of them says to the other, “Patience, my ass! I’m gonna kill something!”?

That’s me.

The graphic you see here? The prayer for patience that ends with “And I want it right now!”?

That’s me.

My curiosity about both of these cousins is about to kill me.

So tell me, cousins of mine… what’s up with the no response?

And is there anything I can do about it?


I wonder what else I need to put into my contact request at 23andMe to convince you that (a) I may be a little odd3 and certainly a bit driven4 but (b) I’m really harmless and getting in touch will not be a bad thing. More information? And, if so, what kind of information?

Do you need to know more about the background I think we might share?

Do you need to know more about me?

Do you need some sort of assurance about what I might do with anything you tell me?

What can I do to help facilitate a conversation?

Perhaps you’re that cousin from out west that I never met because of her parents’ divorce. If that’s the case, I can understand you might want to be cautious about sharing information that might seem disloyal to the parent you were raised by. I can work with you on that, and honor your concerns.

Perhaps you’re an adoptee. Perhaps you knew that, or perhaps you always suspected that the folks who raised you weren’t your biological parents. If that’s the case, I can help you find out more about your biological family… and I will honor any conditions you put on sharing information.

Perhaps you’re a first cousin once removed and you’re just discovering your connection to this wild and wacky family that you’re a part of. If that’s the case, we’re all standing by to welcome you with open arms.

What do you need to hear from me? What can I tell you that will help to bridge the gap between “this is cool” and “this is creepy”?

What else can I say in my sharing invitation that can help ease your concerns and your fears?

Tell me, please.

Because my curiosity is eating me alive.


– Your Cousin


Image: Adapted from Johnny Automatic via

  1. Judy G. Russell to projected 2nd cousin, 23andMe internal mail system, sent 15 April 2014.
  2. Judy G. Russell to projected 1st cousin, 23andMe internal mail system, sent 15 July 2014.
  3. Okay, maybe even a lot odd.
  4. Ibid.
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65 Responses to An open letter to my DNA cousins

  1. Karen V Sipe says:

    Boy did you nail this one!If you find out what the magic words are to spark a response from a DNA match Please oh Please tell the world.LOL

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I’m sure there aren’t any one-size-fits-all magic words, Karen… but if I come up with anything that works, I’ll shout!

  2. Caroline Pointer says:

    Perhaps life happened.

    Perhaps they’re on summer vacation. Perhaps they went to the beach to boogie board or they’re in the middle of climbing a mountain or they’re motoring across America with Aunt Lois.

    Perhaps they just attended their grandmother’s funeral…not the grandmother they hardly knew but the one they “clicked” with and had tea with every Saturday and shared secrets with.

    Perhaps they are their very ill father’s caretaker and it’s been a bad day, week, month, year…

    Perhaps their cat decided to chew on their computer’s cords and they’ve not had time to replace them. (And they used to have 2 computers but they let Aunt Lois use the second one so their niece could help Aunt Lois learn Facebook to keep up with all her grandkids’ photos.

    Life happens. Even after submitting DNA tests for an every-once-and-a-while hobby after seeing that ad for a DNA test on sale and after having 3 Facebook friends say, “Hey, you should do it…we did!” Now, if only they could remember what the name of the company was…


  3. Harold McClendon Jr says:

    While I lack many of the facts with your personal situation, it reminds me of my experiences with DNA. Did these cousins post any genealogical information about their family? Many of my close matches have done no genealogical research and are unable to provide any information to show how we might be related. I wonder what motivated some people to get purchase a DNA test and what they expected to learn from the results. In my efforts to try and understand DNA research, Elizabeth Mills was kind enough to refer me to an NGS Quarterly article from issue no. 2 in 2012 that was written by Dr. Warren C. Pratt. It was a great article about how an individual unraveled a complicated family situation and then used DNA to finalize the results. I tried very hard to understand the article in hopes it would assist me in being a better researcher. I read the article several times and developed ancestral charts to assist with me with understanding the process used by the author but was never fully able to understand the total research process. I found the DNA section more confusing than the genealogical research. The major lesson learned by me from the article was that people such as Elizabeth Mills and Dr. Pratt have a skill level that is so superior to mine that my success in genealogical research will always be limited. Also, DNA research seems to require a skill level far beyond my current level of expertise. I am also very dissatisfied with all of the DNA companies. I started with Sorenson and then went on to Family Tree Maker. As I recall, Sorenson required you to provide an ancestral chart. Family Tree Maker says they will publish basic info if you give it to them but there is no requirement to provide any information about their ancestors. Even a dating service keeps track of the persons using their service who get married. Do any of the DNA companies have any idea as to how many of their customers actually found an ancestor through their system? Frankly I have yet to understand the benefits of understanding more about the science of DNA. If the test results say I am related to an individual, what is the benefit of my knowing their haplogroup or which markers you match or don’t match with if that person is either unwilling or unable to tell you about their ancestors for whom they have documentation. I can put their name on a list of possible names to be on the lookout for but that is about it. Perhaps the leadership of the genealogical community could put more pressure on the DNA companies to make a greater effort to get their customers to publish genealogical information and communicate with their matches. Thanks for letting me rant. I always enjoy reading your posts and attending your lectures. I am looking forward to the conference in Maryland in August.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Harold, the test is valuable even if the other person never posts a public tree, never posts a public surname… IF the person will respond to a request. But when even that doesn’t happen? Sigh…

  4. Renate says:

    Judy, this is awesome! You just spoke for us all!


  5. Karin Corbeil says:

    Boy, Judy, I can relate.

    Imagine you are an adoptee and get a 1st or even 2nd cousin match on 23andme who will not respond. This could be the link to making that discovery of your birth family. It has happened, more times than we would like. A family member of an adoptee experienced this but was determined to find out any information. She wrote her story on finding this mysterious cousin on Not an easy task – tedious and time consuming to say the least but she found a way that eventually led to finding the adoptee’s birth mother.


    Thanks for posting and I do hope they respond TODAY!


    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Karin, I can’t begin to imagine how frustrating it would be to be an adoptee with a match like this and have the match not respond. I can’t even imagine it.

  6. I always say I have a family mystery that I hope to solve through DNA (which is true). It seems to spark people’s interest :-)

    • Suzette says:

      That really sounds like a good intro and so true in so many of these connections. Thanks for the idea.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Ooooh… I like that (and in my family it’s true… the only question is which one to choose!).

  7. Mary Ann Thurmond says:

    Boy, do I identify with this!! I have yet to receive any response from any match you have sent me—and that has been over several YEARS!

  8. Jim Poole says:

    At least for me, this is a common problem in “paper” genealogy as well. My experience has been that about 1 in 10 attempts to connect/correspond results in any response. Odd that people would put postings out seeking connections, and then hide away, but maybe there’s an explanation that eludes me…maybe I’ve been “blacklisted” – wonder what I did???

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      LOL! Oh yeah… I’ve wondered that too. Are they not answering because it turns out they’re related to (gasp) me?

  9. Dena says:

    Hi Judy,

    Perhaps your match is an old person who is not computer savvy and someone else convinced them to do the test?

    In any case, I do wonder why people bother if they do not wish to share.

    I have a second cousin match with a known family name, who once contacted by me, amended their account info to reflect only their initials. Clearly they did not want to communicate.

    Oh, why oh why?

    I share your frustration.


    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I really do understand there may be reasons why they don’t want to share. I truly do. I just hope hope hope to convince them otherwise.

    • Maybe the 23ANDME subscribers with only initials and no profile surnames don’t want to work on genealogy. Maybe they are content with answering the many many questionaires that helps 23ANDME discover physical or personality characteristics based on chromosomal segments. Peace, Jim

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        That could be, but the particular cousins I wish would respond tested only after the health test reporting had been suspended, so you’d think — you’d hope — it was for family research.

  10. Greta Koehl says:

    Ditto, ditto, ditto. Though I have to admit, one of those close connections on 23 and Me – a young, male second cousin once removed – actually contacted ME first! And boy was he thrilled when he found out what our connection was. So now I know where some of that Norman DNA resides. Now if I could just get some of those super-close connections on FTDNA to reply …. (and Ancestry would put a chromosome browser on and….)

  11. Suzette says:

    I too find this so very frustrating when a close match will not respond to an invitation. I guess the curiosity and family history genes did not get transferred. And patience is not one of my virtues. I wonder if that is genetic?

  12. Here! Here! You so eloquently speak for all of us!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks, and I hope we as a group can think of more and better things to say to convince our DNA cousins to talk to us!

  13. John Simmons says:

    Eureka! We are related, Judy. No, I am not your close cousin, but both of us relate to the same scenario.

  14. Ann Smart says:

    On Family Tree DNA, I had a match and he only listed one family line (for his last name) and it was my family way back. I wrote. Then I wrote again. Then I wrote a year later. On a lark I wrote a few weeks ago (it had been 2 years) and he wrote right back and seemed so eager to hear from me! Who knows where all those earlier emails went? I didn’t want to confront him about why he didn’t answer the earlier requests. I was so glad to hear from him and hope we learn something from his Y test. Same week I heard from a woman I had started trying to reach a year ago. So be patient and try periodically.

    My biggest problem is that my DNA connects me to a lot of Clark’s. My 2nd great-grandmother was a Clark but I don’t have a clue yet who her parents were and her husband was a “bastard”–I have the bastardy bond to prove it–so I don’t know anything about his father. Sigh. Then there are the Joneses. Good news on that front, I just got one of the last two male Joneses that I know from my line to do the Y test, so maybe I’ll figure that one out further back than my 3rd great-grandfather. I know I frustrate DNA cousins when I can’t provide the genealogy, but it is not from the lack of trying.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Ah yes… the Joneses. I have them too. I descend from a Jones. John, of course.

    • Melody Clark McArdle says:

      Clark’s are VERY ELUSIVE people. Trust me, I know who my gr grandparents Clark were, and I know the names of my 2nd gr granparents CLARK. I know a little more about my gr grandparents, but nothing about where they went to or died after about 1890.
      I do know that they were all in MO.

      Good Luck with your search for CLARK’s.

  15. One thing I did was create a youtube video about my tree and use Google map to display
    where my family tree is located. I feel that could make it more intresting to spend some time


    A youtube video just done using screen recording looks like this

    Br from Stockholm Sweden
    Magnus Sälgö

  16. What is so frustrating when 2 out of 3 matches are ‘private’. Kinda puts one in a quandary I say.

  17. Leslie says:

    Great post, Judy. You perfectly describe a frustration that I have also experienced on both 23andMe and AncestryDNA. I don’t know the magic formula for getting a response, but for sure it does not involve the “generic” note that the system provides–customizing the note and offering a bit of information about myself has opened several doors. Including a pointer to my blog helps in some cases, but I wonder if it also scares away the privacy wary? Dunno. I haven’t made my tree public because it requires a good deal of cleanup (I had noooo idea what I was doing when I started), but I do make a point of sharing it with any DNA cousin who asks.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I have a stripped down undocumented tree on AncestryDNA at least as a starting point, Leslie, just to try to get people going in the right direction.

  18. Jim says:

    Sorry if these have been mentioned. The first two things that occurred to me were to link your blog so they know you’re legit and to assure them that you will respect any privacy concerns they may have.

  19. Paula Williams says:

    I echo the “answer me, answer me NOW!” request :)

    Unfortunately, many of my DNA emails end up in my spam folder for some reason. Not much you can do about that, though, dangit.

  20. Pingback: WikiWeek In Review: 21 July 2014 | WikiTree Blog

  21. Nora Galvin says:

    I’m thinking they had the smarts to turn off email notification, but not enough smarts to realize they would then have to check the Web site every so often. Or they did not turn off email notifications but made up an email address for this and forgot the password. Another thought is what someone else mentioned. It is a not-so-interested person who has been arm-twisted into testing. However, the twister did not have the smarts to set up a family account, so the data for the twistee sits, twisting slowly in the wind.

    My sister and I have a matching family–two sisters, a brother and the brother’s daughter–that are our closest matches (other than each other and first cousins). We can get only the young woman to share genomes. Emails to the others, and emails pleading with her to encourage the others to share, have gone unanswered. Luckily she has a very nice tree online and we are pursuing the elusive origins of our Patrick H. Conly. Still . . .

  22. Oh, yes, I relate. :-)

    But what gets me is the adoptees I respond to saying I am willing to help in any way and…I never hear from them! I suppose there are a lot of reasons for that, too, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.


  23. Brynne says:

    People do genealogy for different reasons. They also do DNA testing for different reasons. I’ve spoken to some people whose only DNA interest was in determining their ethnicity, but they had absolutely no interest in making connections with living cousins. Interests vary. I have a friend who loves genealogy because it’s a solitary pursuit. She says her favorite thing about her ancestors is that she feels close to them, but they’re not going to call her or email adding stress to her already too busy life. LOL! Genealogy is her escape. When I pointed out that she might get useful information that she didn’t have from other cousins, she said that would take all the fun out of it–she loves the mystery-solving aspect of genealogy and wants to do the research on her own. She made me laugh when she said that she would rather run naked through the streets than make her tree public! Each to our own drummer.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I try to understand that, Brynne… but sigh… it’s a first cousin.

      • Brynne says:

        Judy–I have to admit that a FIRST cousin is a different kettle of fish. That must be incredibly frustrating. The curiosity would be killing me.

        I have some personal insight into that. I am the first cousin of several people who don’t know of my existence. While I would be willing to establish contact, it would mean making public family secrets of our parents’ generation, some of whom are still living. It is their story to tell, not mine, and they don’t want it told. For that reason, I have never put this branch in my tree, even though it isn’t published.

        Perhaps it’s that sort of situation. (Realizing that possibility increases the curiosity, of course! LOL!)

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          I do understand it could be that kind of situation… but oh yes… it sure does add to the curiosity factor!!!

  24. Andrea Crowell says:

    I love this post, Judy, it’s so true! My kits are at Family Tree DNA – where surely the goal is clearly genealogy! – and I’d estimate that same 1 in 10 response rate someone mentioned. And the only nasty responses I have received are from adoptees, whose frustration I can easily understand. I guess they rarely see me as a resource because they are looking for siblings, half siblings, and closer cousins than our 4th and 5th cousin predictions.

    Most of my matches are through my father’s lines. I list (in small print under my signature) his great-grandparents and locations. If I have a clue where we might intersect, I’ll write a quick paragraph about that part of my family in the desperate hope that they’ll see something familiar.

    I’ve also had success in writing repeatedly. Of course, you feel like a stalker, but sometimes folks I’ve written for the third time respond as though they’d never seen my first two attempts…

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I contact people more than once as well, Andrea, but at 23andMe you’re only allowed to even try to contact someone three times. And all contacts have to go through the internal email system there.

  25. Michael says:

    You sure know how to strike a chord, Judy!

    As Jim mentioned, I provide a link to my blog if I can tell who the person is that I’m contacting – which is often the case on Ancestry, and hardly ever on 23andMe. I’ve had no luck at all with close matches (2% or higher) at 23andMe, but closer to a 50% response at Ancestry. Your blog is an even better link since it’s so genealogy-related.

    As others suggested and Judy illustrated, always, always customize your note. I have a zillion distant DNA relatives and if I get the form letter from a distant cousin match I’m often not going to respond. Tell me a story and I’ll nearly always respond, even if I have nothing useful to offer now.

    I generally attribute the lack of responses to lack of customer interest in genealogy, as well as to problems with the messaging systems. At 23andMe the current invite apparently looks like you’re asking to share health information even if you’re not. At Ancestry totally innocuous invites can land in a very hard to find “Pending Review” spam folder. I’ve missed several sent to me for months at a time due to that problem. People who are at either site for that magic ancestry computation could view our contacts as spam. All we can do is keep trying and share tips for success!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It is frustrating, for sure, but… Thanks for sharing your good suggestions for customizing those messages!

  26. Dave N says:

    I’m going to be adding a link to this blog entry in my profile, along with a number of other useful links… Hopefully it will help tip a few more decisions to the “respond” side…! Thank you for writing up this rather ‘different‘ entry!

  27. Judy says:

    I know the feeling. I’ve contacted a person on Ancestry with the same thing. I don’t understand why people take the test if they don’t want to find cousins. Oh well good luck. After 3 months of waiting I might make a third request, but then I feel like a pest.

  28. Try downloading your raw data to It is a free site that lets you see the 23 chromosomes, one to one matches, and the SNP’s in common. They give you a kit#. In a few weeks you can print a list of one to many. I had 44 pages with email addresses to 8 generations. I found it much easier to understand than 23 and me. combines data from and other sites.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That doesn’t do you any good if the person you’re looking to get information about hasn’t uploaded to GedMatch. Both that person AND you have to act in order for GedMatch to be able to compare your data.

  29. Pingback: WikiWeek In Review: 28 July 2014 | WikiTree Blog

  30. Lynn M says:

    I won’t say much or make suggestions other than to really say “EXACTLY.” Yes, it could be anything (as a mental health professional that deals with cognitive distortions very often, few of us are adept at considering all the why’s). But the real reason is less the point here, I think (?), than how it feels to be left wondering. Such a nice essay on that feeling all of us with DNA results have felt at some point!

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