The online etiquette of meeting newly discovered relations from different ethnic groups

So you take a DNA test. And you discover that you have fairly close relations of a different race/culture. What on earth do you do? Ok, what I actually mean is what do you do if you’re American. Emily Post and The Lady didn’t see this one coming. They offer no pearls of wisdom.

You can always start with a friendly ‘Hello’.

There are no etiquette guides to steer one through making contact with newly found family members when they’re of a different ethic group or culture from your own. Especially for Americans. So I let that stalwart of British virtues guide my hand – good old fashioned common sense.

Meeting Sheffey and Roane relations from the white side of the family tree has been a most excellent adventure. And affirming. All those quirks and foibles I thought were inherently my family’s is, actually, fairly common among the Sheffey clan: free thinking & outspokenness (sometimes to our detriment), the fighters of good fights, an entrepreneurial drive and a bent towards being socially minded…and a seemingly mystical  reverence for the Sheffey name. All of these qualities are shared on the European descended and African descended sides of the family. Both sides of the family have embraced one another. It’s been a brilliant thing to see so many branches of the family meeting each other online and sharing laughs as well as family stories.

I haven’t met many Roanes from the European descended side of the family. Those that I have met online have freely shared what they know about their Roane ancestors. By that, I mean wills and tax lists which cite the names of the slaves that their ancestors owned. This has made my family research a thousand times easier. With each new document, I continue to  narrow down the potential candidates that could be my 4x Roane great-grandfather. The Roane family’s tastes for refinement, a certain élan, observance of proper conduct and again, a pride in the family name, also resonates strongly with me. If this is indeed part of my Roane family inheritance, it probably explains my ability to get on rather well in Britain.

I haven’t met many European descended Joseys online. The few I’ve met live in Scotland, the Josey’s homeland. Oh yes, and a Josey descendant in Australia. Meeting Josey family descendants and chatting to them online leads me to believe it is from them that I inherited a fascination for science. In their day, the Joseys held some of the highest medical and scientific offices in the British Empire, generation after generation. In the tine of the Scottish and English Stuart Kings and Queens, they were also savvy courtiers and politicians.

I think the key to establishing these successful cross-ethnic contacts successful was down to my initial approach. There’s no getting around it, when it comes to my American European-descended relations, the slavery issue is an awkward one. This is largely due to how America has chosen to address it, or rather how it has chosen not to address it (oh how I can hear Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter et al gnashing their teeth!). It’s tricky enough making contact with the descendants of people who owned peoples’ African descended ancestors. But when the owners of those enslaved ancestors were also their blood kinsmen and kinswomen, well, that just adds an extra special twist. Just let that idea rattle around inside your head.

It’s like that awkward moment on a date when both parties are thinking ‘are we going to kiss or not’.  I like to get the awkwardness out of the way early on rather than have it hang like some proverbial Sword of Damocles. The longer you leave it, the longer you ignore the elephant in the room, it just becomes this thing that it shouldn’t be. It kind of takes on a life force of its own, that thing that’s ignored. So what I say usually runs along the lines of:  ‘Look, the world was what it was in those times. That was then and this is now. I’m just saying hello and I hope to find out more about our family.” And that ‘our family’ is important. For me, it sets the context of everything. It frames the conversation. And it puts the recipient at his or her ease. They understand where I’m coming from.

One thing about online etiquette, I suggest always re-reading what you want to send someone (email, in-box messages on ancestry or whatever family tree service you use, DNA testing sites, etc) before you send it. Even read it out loud. I receive so many messages – too many, actually – that have an aggressive tone. The majority of the time this tone isn’t intended. Just remember that the person on the other end of the message doesn’t know you, hasn’t ever met you and can’t see or read your facial expression when they open that message or email. Politeness, respectfulness and friendliness go a long way. See – pure Roane right there!

One last bit of genealogy etiquette advice. So you’ve done a DNA test and you’ve emailed people you’re genetically matched to. And someone doesn’t respond to your email or message. Let it go. Their silence doesn’t mean they aren’t excited or intrigued to hear from you. There’s a reason that holds them back from responding. It’s that simple. Frustrating for you, no doubt, but we have to be respectful of other people’s privacy and reasons. Focus on the people who do respond.

In closing, what’s been truly amazing is corresponding with people I’m genetically linked to who live in a completely different part of the world. My Genebase mtDNA and Y-DNA results have linked me people literally all over the globe. I’m in touch with a Jewish cousin who lives in a small town in Hungary, an Egyptian cousin who lives just outside of El-Mahalla El-Kubra, a cousin who lives in the Dominican Republic and one more who lives in Belo Horizonte in Brazil. The last two are also descendants of enslaved Africans. Given the DNA data, it would appear that I share a common Tuareg male ancestor with the chap in Brazil and a common Berber female ancestor with the lady who lives in the Dominican Republic.

We’ll never know the names of the common ancestors we share. The common ancestors I share with each of these cousins were alive anywhere from 25 generations ago (the case with the cousins in Brazil and the Dominican Republic) to 50+ generations ago (the others I mentioned). If you take a generation as being 25 years, that’s a common ancestor who lived around 625 years ago. In the case of 30 generations of separation, that’s an ancestor who lived 1,250 years ago. I have one match on my father’s side who lives in Iran and we’re separated by around approximately 99 generations – 2,475 years ago. I’d love to hear from my Iranian cousin but respect that he hasn’t replied to my email. Given that he lives in Iran, there are probably all manner of reasons why he hasn’t.

So, when making an initial approach to a newly discovered relation…how you say something is as important as what you say.

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3 thoughts on “The online etiquette of meeting newly discovered relations from different ethnic groups

  1. Just curious…my gg grandmother was Vensus Josey, born early 1800s in NC. I have been working on my family history nearly 15 yearn and unable to advance in my search. Any advice?

    Sent from my iPad

    • Hi Dorna. I’d love to touch base with you. I’m one of her descendants too.

      I’m trying to trace the estate papers fir Stephen and Martha Josey. Since Venus bite him children, I’m hoping there might be more personal documents available for her. Even better, something that gives the names of her parents.

      The best hope is to find either Stephen and Martha’s family bible, a diary that either might have kept, or taxation registration for either Stephen or his father.

    • Hi Dorna. I’ve just had a great exchange with Ketris on Facebook. She’s told me a little about Venus and Mr Cain and Venus and Mr Story. I’m hoping you can fill in a lot of blanks! briansheffey(at)gmail(dot)com

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