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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.
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The 3 Ps of Genetic Genealogy

Want to use DNA for genealogy success? You'll need these three easy peasy, I mean three easy Ps.

This week I was reminded of some basics of genetic genealogy (that's using DNA for family history). Not basics like what a centimorgan is (cM, that's a unit of measurement) or how much DNA you should expect to share with a 2nd cousin (3.125% or about 212 cMs).

No, real basics, like how to get an unwilling relative to spit for you.

It doesn't get any more basic than getting someone to take a DNA test!

After all, it doesn't matter how many basic facts you know if you have no tests to use.

Turns out the basics of getting people to take a test for you can be condensed down to 3 Ps (hmmm, that sounds familiar somehow). Here are my 3 Ps of Genetic Genealogy.

1. Patience

Patience is important in genetic genealogy in sooooooo many ways. I had to exercise patience in this week's real-life situation in several ways.

First, I had to be patient to have a chance to visit the relative that I wanted tested. I recommend not being too patient in this regard. You want to gather your DNA sample as soon as possible, you never know when aliens might abduct the relative you want to test (or maybe something more realistic and more serious).

Now that my tests are in the mail, I will have to exercise patience waiting for the results. They'll get here when they get here. Personally, I have never had an unexpected or inappropriately long wait. I have heard of some examples of this happening to people though. It was usually in situations where there was a huge sale or other major event where a testing company was suddenly inundated with results (which could include transfers).

Constantly contacting the company, when your wait is appropriately long, will not get your results faster. Know what kind of wait to expect. If it seems too long, see if you can gather some information online to see if others are having a similar experience. Adjust your expectations if necessary.

You should contact the company if you are experiencing an abnormally long wait, especially if you are NOT receiving email notifications that they are aware of this (that means your email address needs to be registered as belonging to the submitted kit, usually done when you purchased it, but you may need to manually do this).

Just to be clear, I'm saying you need to know what an appropriate wait is and contact the company when it is too long, not just when you FEEL it is too long. Have patience.

There's another type of patience I really want to talk about, though.

This week I had to exercise patience while I literally sat and waited to administer the DNA test to the test taker. This relative was rather unwilling at first but willing for us (I went armed with closer relatives) to come in and sit down.

After an hour of chit-chat, mainly about the aches and pains of old age (which I didn't qualify for in this group), my relative finally warmed up and was even willing to take the test.

I'm still not sure what the objection was initially. I'm pretty sure it was due to misunderstanding but I don't know if the relative expected I was going to ask for money (i.e. he pay for all or part of the test) or something else. It doesn't matter because I didn't need to reason with him to get him to take the test.

(You could also throw in a fourth P for "pennies," as in money. Those four Ps are the most likely to get you the DNA tests you want although pennies aren't always a requirement).

Patience is essential if you have a relative that is hesitant about taking a test. This type of patience might need to last a while if you have to talk him/her into it over time. It might never work.

Especially if you're in-person, use patience. I usually have a nice genealogical conversation with relatives I barely know (it's what we have in common). This time, that didn't really work and I didn't think it would. I was prepared to sit and let the situation warm-up, then I explained what I wanted. It only took an hour in this case (it took months before I got to this relative's house so an hour was nothing!).

There's one last type of patience in genetic genealogy. That is after you get your results. Sometimes you just have to wait for the right match to come in. Genetic genealogy is not fast, it's ongoing.

So to recap, patience is needed at different stages of genetic genealogy.
  • When waiting to visit a relative you need to personally administer a test to (don't be too patient!)
  • When trying to convince a hesitant test-taker-to-be.
  • While waiting for results to arrive.
  • When "using" results, sometimes you need the right match for your project.
Patience is vital to genetic genealogy. It works with some of the other Ps, also.

2. Perseverance

I think this second P has two primary applications but it is also the P that will get you in trouble.

It was necessary to persevere when I was trying to get my relative to take the test this week. Just showing up was perseverance, the relative's spouse had said he wouldn't take the test (she said that without asking him, which I knew, so this was not being pig-headed and stubborn!). This type of perseverance is what can also get you in trouble! See the third P on how to avoid trouble.

The second, and safer, type of perseverance is when using results. Learning to use DNA and doing the necessary analysis/work requires LOTS of perseverance. Remember, not fast, ongoing.

If you're new to genetic genealogy and surprised how long it takes (and you're reading this, which means you haven't already given up!), the way you will be able to persevere is with a plan and organization.

These are what have always helped genealogists find success over the years it takes to research your family history. The same concepts apply to genetic genealogy, the tools may just be different.

You may think you have been patient and gotten the needed matches only to find you've gotten nowhere or only a tiny bit farther on. That's how genetic genealogy works. Just keep persevering.

3. Politeness

This is the MOST important P of all. I don't care if you have all the patience in the world and persevere forever if you're not polite.

My father used to always say, "you'll catch more flies with honey than vinegar." We all know it's true, so apply it!

If you have hesitant test-takers-to-be, they will not change their mind if you are not polite.

You can not do genetic genealogy without matches. At some point you will need to contact someone. You need to be polite. There is a VERY good chance your interests in genetic genealogy are different than theirs. If you're not polite, they don't have to work with you, at all.

You WILL find people who aren't polite to you. You never know when you're going to need them so don't be rude (I'm not saying to have to go along with rude people but find a polite solution).

Also, with genetic genealogy, always remember, you're dealing with people. You have no idea what is going on in their life. You have no idea what kind of negative impact taking a DNA test might have had on them or their family.

Genetic genealogy can open many cans of worms. It can open some really horrible ones that you wouldn't want to deal with so don't expect someone else to go along like nothing happened.

This is why we're supposed to be polite to each other.

For many of us, genetic genealogy is just another fun aspect of a fun hobby. For some people it's more serious (they are looking for health information or were adopted and aren't just in this for "fun"). For some, it might turn into something horrible (learning of rape or incest in your immediate family, or even just learning a biological relative isn't a biological relative).

You can't know these things before you contact someone and it's unreasonable to expect to be given every gory detail when you do.

Being polite is the solution.

You'll need patience for genetic genealogy and you should persevere. Being polite is what keeps those Ps from turning sour (we all like sweet Ps, right?). So I'll say it again, if you don't follow any other of the Ps, be polite.

For success in genetic genealogy, you need the 3 Ps, patience, perseverance, and especially, politeness. The fourth P, pennies (money) doesn't hurt either.

Patience needs to be exercised at each phase from pre-testing, to analysis. Just be stingy with the patience when it comes to waiting to test someone.

Perseverance is a must. Genetic genealogy is not easy and it is not fast.

Most importantly, you need to temper the other Ps with being polite.

You can find my other posts about genetic genealogy, here.


  1. These three qualities are things we need to do in regular research too. The librarian might have legitimately lost your request, or that family skeleton so dramatically exposed in the newspaper might not be as welcome as you assume. Those records might take a few months and multiple visits to dig out of the archives.

  2. How do you suggest contacting potential test-takers? If I have a phone number and street address, is calling or writing better? What should I say to have the best result?

  3. So this isn't an easy answer. First, if this is a sensitive situation at all, you need to write. You can get some ideas for very basic emails AND sensitive letters from Watershed DNA, There are other sites with similar ideas so if you've got a sensitive situation, do some online research about best practices (whether contacting test-takers or matches).

    If this is just an "everyday" contact, I ALWAYS email. If that's not an option, I would call a genealogist. For normal people, read on...
    I have always hated the phone, even as a teenage girl, I did not talk on the phone if I could help it. That means if someone calls me out of the blue, I am automatically on my guard that it's a scam. Writing a physical letter (or an email) gives people a chance to process the information without you being "present."
    It's like being in a store to buy something, having the sales person stand there while you think is very different than if they leave you alone. A phone call, you are "standing" there putting pressure on them which they may perceive as dishonest. You can of course call and hang up to give them a chance to think but you're not sure they have anything physical to remind them of the call (they may or may not have written down your number).
    Writing or an email ensures they have your contact information, even if they decide to trash it immediately. Not everyone will have the same aversion I have to the phone so I see no reason not to follow-up with a call a week or more after you believe your letter was received. That will give you a personal connection while avoiding an instant "scam" response of a call out of the blue.
    Another technique is to see if you can identify a related genealogist (using message boards) who may already know the person. This is a long shot in many cases but is likely research you are already doing to identify test-takers. The point is to have the genealogist (who will know you're a kindred spirit, not a scammer) to alert the potential test-taker to your existence. Then a first phone call is perfect.
    Basically, a phone call is good for non-sensitive situations but calling out of the blue, to a non-genealogist, may give them the wrong first impression. A letter, followed by a phone call, is probably better if you can't email or don't want to email. If you can be "introduced" by someone the potential test-taker knows, that is always best (in my example in the post, my grandmother made the arrangements as it was her close relative. I knew this was a tricky situation so I was more hands-off than I am with other situations---be willing to adapt for each situation).


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