Attitude Adjustment

Attitude Adjustment

Has your pedigree been pilfered? Not sure how to politely put off that clinging cousin? Mr. Manners is here to help you handle all your genealogy pet peeves.

Although we find that the pursuit of genealogy generally brings out the best in its adherents, occasionally a—shall we say—pain in the neck contaminates the otherwise quite gratifying family history experience. Perhaps you’ve encountered your research (notes and all) unattributed in another’s online tree, or your dear cousin has managed to acquire the one heirloom you fervently hoped might become yours.

Not to worry: Mr. Manners is here to help you handle all your genealogy pet peeves with aplomb by answering your vexing family history etiquette questions. Didn’t even realize there was such a thing as genealogy etiquette? Darling, didn’t anyone in your family tree climb down from the trees or crawl out of those nasty caves? Really! If you judiciously make use of this counsel when faced with the irritating individuals, Mr. Manners believes you’ll recapture the joy of pursuing your genealogy.

Cousin disconnect

 Dear Mr. Manners: I keep getting emails from someone who claims that he is some distant cousin of mine, requesting copies of my genealogy files. But he won’t say how he’s actually related to me. How should I respond?
                                                                                                                                     —Perplexed in Paducah
Dear Perplexed: Try a little faux thoughtfulness: “How wonderful to hear from you, cousin. Please tell me how we’re related so that I can make sure to send you everything I have about our shared branch of the family tree.” If that doesn’t work, think about what pedigree files you’d be willing to post online (or perhaps already have) for any Tom, Dick or Harriet to download. Send that to your close-mouthed cousin and say it’s all you have.

Silent treatment

Dear Mr. Manners: I learned about a distant relative who was working on the same family line I am, and I was excited to get in touch with her because I have several brick walls with this family. I took the time to print out the information I’ve researched for years and wrote her a nice letter explaining who I am and what I’m working on, and how I’d love to compare notes. It’s been several months now and I haven’t heard a thing. What should I do?
                                                                                                                                     —Peeved in Peoria

Dear Peeved: Some genealogists simply aren’t sharers. Despite their interest in people of the past, they aren’t people persons. Nonetheless, you needn’t give up on your reluctant relative just yet. The trick here is to remind your distant cousin of your earlier correspondence without implying that she is, well, rude. Send a brief follow-up with some additional piece of info that you “forgot” to include the first time. Perhaps your kin misplaced your first letter or it got shuffled underneath the latest issue of Family Tree Magazine. Your friendly, blame-free second letter may prompt a response.

A different form of communication might also prove effective. Since you originally used postal mail, try emailing if you have her address. We find the out-of-the-blue phone call (“Hi, you don’t know me, but your third-great-grandfather was my fourth-great-uncle … ”) a bit jarring, but if all else fails and you’re desperate enough for answers, go for it. If she hangs up, you’ll be no worse off than now.

Tree heist

Dear Mr. Manners: I’ve spotted my own genealogy research, without attribution, in other people’s online pedigrees. Worse, they’ve tacked on mistakes! Is there anything I can do?
                                                                                                                                      —Miffed in Missoula

Dear Miffed: The right approach depends on what your goal is. If you chiefly want credit where credit is due, you could certainly contact the pedigree purloiners and nicely request attribution in the file’s sources. Tempt the person with the implied promise of sharing still more, hitherto-unposted data if he cooperates. Play on your “family” ties. (It’s always good to address a genealogy correspondent as “cousin.”) Family tree websites tend to avoid refereeing such arguments, so taking your complaints to the admin probably won’t help. And it’s unlikely you could profitably sue the person: The US Supreme Court has ruled that facts can’t be copyrighted, which is why data such as once appeared only in the phone book are now everywhere.
Correcting another’s genealogical errors also takes just the right attitude. Seek to sound helpful, rather than accusatory. “Dear Moron” is not a productive way to open your correspondence with someone whom you’re attempting to show the error of his ways. You might cast the communication as new information: “Since I posted my genealogy of the Schmilpotts family, which I’m delighted was useful to you … ” (much better than “which I see you’ve stolen”). Offer evidence why your version of your mutual ancestors’ past is correct, without casting aspersions. “Only an idiot could believe that Hezekiah Schmilpotts was born in 1823” is, again, unhelpful. If you get no response, consider posting the correct, sourced information as many places as you can, and have faith the truth will prevail.

Doubtful data

Dear Mr. Manners: My biggest peeve in genealogy is people who post GEDCOMs without verifying any data. If they list any source, it’s either their own genealogy file or someone else’s GEDCOM, or World Family Tree (WFT). Is this rude or stupid or both?
                                                                                                                                      —Hot Under the Collar in Houston

Dear Hot: My, someone got up on the wrong side of the pedigree chart this morning! While of course expressing our frustration at such practices much more politely, we echo your abhorrence. In particular, we’d like to point out that “facts” such as “WFT Est 1825-1845” are not actual information and should not be passed along as if they are. Here is how the folks at Family Tree Maker, which unleashed the World Family Tree upon the genealogy public, explain this:

“We find deceased individuals who do not have a birth, marriage or death date and make a 95-percent-accurate estimate for the range of years in which the event took place. For example, ‘WFT Est 1850-1870’ means that there is a 95 percent chance that the event took place between 1850 and 1870. We include ‘WFT EST’ to indicate that we made the estimate, not the person who submitted the file.”
Nonetheless, before our Texas correspondent goes on one of those chainsaw-massacre sprees à la the state’s namesake horror film, we must also concede that information in GEDCOMs, even otherwise unsourced, can provide useful clues. If you have zero candidates for the father of your ancestor Horace Huckleberry, coming across the theory—for that’s all it really is at this point—that Horace’s dear old dad was Ezekiel Huckleberry is (marginally) better than nothing. Now you can set out to prove or disprove the Ezekiel claim.
We only wish that the makers of genealogy software and pedigree sites had a better way to differentiate between information that you know is true and that which is mere conjecture.

Talk about tangents

Dear Mr. Manners: Is it appropriate to use message boards to carry on conversations? Shouldn’t these researchers just email each other directly?
                                                                                                                                      —Concerned in Cleveland

Dear Concerned:
Endless message-board threads can indeed be frustrating, but it’s equally off-putting to see a conversation go offline just when useful information is about to be imparted. If a message-board conversation truly is of interest only to the two researchers who are communicating, then yes, it’s better to switch to exchanging emails directly. Often, however, facts exchanged between two genealogists on a message board may prove valuable to a third researcher—even years later.

Our advice? Ask yourself, “Might this thread someday in some way help someone else?” If the answer is in the affirmative, keep posting. If you are exchanging purely private data or the thread has devolved into a discussion of your pet parakeets, exchange emails and spare us, please.

Not clicking

Dear Mr. Manners: I joined the local genealogy club, but can’t seem to break into the clique of longtime members where all the action is. They’ve been running the club, it seems, since their ancestors disembarked from the Mayflower. How do I make headway?
                                                                                                                                      —Shut Out in Schenectady

Dear Shut Out: First, may we politely inquire why you wish to hobnob with such snobs? Perhaps there’s another genealogy group in your area that’s more welcoming. A Google search or clicking at might uncover an alternative. Failing that, you’re likely not the only member who feels like an outsider looking in. Consider recruiting other outcasts and spinning off a club of your own, where newcomers like yourself are more welcome. With such an open-arms attitude, your rival group will no doubt grow quickly and soon outstrip the snobs’ society.

If you really must fit in, however, don’t tackle the clique as a whole. Single out one clique member who appears less standoffish, who’s at least willing to look in your direction. Ideally, this person should share a genealogical interest with you. If your club has presentations by members, go up to this friendlier face after she’s given a talk and dole out a compliment, perhaps followed by the possibility of sharing some of your information. Flattery, darling, will get you almost everywhere, and bribery will get you anyplace flattery can’t. Once you have an ally, use her to elbow your way in to the clique.

Philosophical differences

Dear Mr. Manners: I’d like to use data from a hereditary genealogy society—and even considered joining—but I strongly disagree with the social views it espouses. Where should I draw the line?
                                                                                                                                      —Queasy in Quinnipiac

Dear Queasy: As President Clinton once said, we feel your pain. Our own ancestors were on the wrong side of American history at times, and while recording their pasts, we hold no truck with those alive today who apparently have learned nothing in the intervening years. Joining such a group can imply agreement, or at least acquiescence, in views you find odious. You might even wish to pursue other avenues to the same data before using this group’s records. Certainly, though, primary sources that happen to be held by an organization you feel is tainted don’t need to be tarred with the same brush. Data that are unique to the society might be used merely as clues for your research, much like those unverified GEDCOMs, rather than having to cite the source in your own files.

Unfair share

Dear Mr. Manners: Somehow my cousin wound up with most of our mutual grandparents’ possessions, including one-of-a-kind old photos and family heirlooms. Can I insist that she share?
                                                                                                                                      —Resentful in Reno

Dear Resentful: Stomping your feet with your dear cousin is unlikely to produce an outburst of even-handedness. But there’s no reason not to try … well, Mr. Manners hesitates to call it “wheedling.” You might, for example, recall fondly and at great length how Grandma used to hold you in her lap in that rocking chair or Grandpa used to let you win at chess on the board he crafted himself. Pause frequently in your tearful reminiscences to give your cousin the opportunity to do the right thing and volunteer that you should have the treasured object. If you have children—and especially if your cousin does not—feel free to mention how you’d love to be able to pass the heirloom you treasure on to the next generation. (You don’t want it for yourself, oh, no. But wouldn’t Grandma have wanted her great-grandchildren to have it?)

Photos are easy. As much as you might love to get your hands on the originals, keep in mind that the image is what you truly desire. Ask if you can copy the pictures, at your expense. (Just in case, inquire if dear cousin happens to have the negatives?) Scan them into your computer, too, and suddenly you’ll become the source of these precious family photos, at least in the digital world. You might be able to convince your cousin to let you scan them right at her house with a portable scanner.

Quick studies

Dear Mr. Manners: I am amazed at how many people who get interested in genealogy, after one weekend will say they’ve traced their family tree back to the 1500s and found it all on the internet. What should one say to these people?
                                                                                                                                      —Appalled in Albany

Dear Appalled: Depending on your relationship with the individual, you might gently attempt to educate him about the unreliability of much downloaded genealogy data and the crucial importance of consulting original sources for one’s self. But Mr. Manners prefers simply responding, “Oh, you poor dear. Now you’ll never have the pleasure of discovering your ancestry for yourself.”


  • Remember that courthouse clerks and other public employees have work to do that doesn’t include assisting genealogists. Be unfailingly courteous when visiting repositories, keep questions to the point, and send a thank-you note.
  • Consider using social media sites to contact long-lost cousins for information. Some people check their Facebook page far more often than they check their email.

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From the February 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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