Making overtures

The DNA of West Cork People

Mark Grace is a genetic genealogist and family historian at Ballynoe House, Ardfield, Co. Cork

This is my 30th column for West Cork People covering various topics in relation to DNA testing and matching for family history, as well outlining histories of West Cork families discovered along the way. I hope this has encouraged you try DNA testing to prove your own paper family history. From the feedback I get, I know many regular readers have. It is more affordable than ever and provides a rewarding hobby and learning experience. Perhaps you have received or taken a DNA test over Christmas and want to get more involved in exploring your roots this new year?

Outreach, or contacting people on family history and DNA testing websites, is the primary way to try and gather family stories, swap photographs, and ultimately document your genetically-proven ancestral legacy using DNA matching. It sounds simple enough when these platforms provide internal messaging systems for this purpose, however it is worth remembering that you are dealing with real people you have no prior relationship with. They can be unpredictable and surprising. You do not know their reasons for having DNA tested or being on the same website as you and how they feel about being contacted. It is not as simple as one may think (i.e. assuming we all have a common purpose), especially if you are enthusiastically starting out on your own adventure!

Despite the apparent informality that these messaging systems provide, you should always start communications in a simple, clear, and polite manner. I have mentioned in previous articles that you should not make the rookie error of trying to provide a full and detailed message as that is often a waste of your time based on the low response rate. It may not even be read. Less than one per cent will reply. Keep it short and to the point of why you are contacting them and invite them to respond. If they reply, then provide more, start building a collaborative relationship and opt to continue correspondence by email. If they don’t reply, try not to get frustrated (as I know many people do).

The lack of response to outreach is one of the most confusing and frustrating aspects of this hobby and it can result in people giving up. I discuss ‘The Silent Majority’ in my January 2022 column which is available online at It is important to manage your expectations so you can focus on the positive.

Over 45 years of research (starting from when letter writing was the only way and moving into the age of DNA and email) I have probably experienced it all. I divide the one per cent who do reply into five general categories, which is provided as a guide to what you may experience:

Level 5 – These are the people you hope to find. Responsive, highly collaborative, keen hobbyist or genetic genealogists, genuinely interested, with frequent interactions. This includes adoptees and those who have unclear parentage who are keen to find answers. If tested, they openly share their DNA data and match lists with genetic genealogists. They share their data to other sites. Not having previously tested, they find reason to do so or get other family members involved. They understand what collaborating with a DNA legacy project is and what proving a shared family tree is all about. Keen to learn, no DNA project or family history research is successful without several key collaborators at this level.

Level 4 – Tend to be collaborative to a point and show a mild interest. A degree of reluctance is often due to the lack of understanding of how DNA matching works or that they have a family matter they are trying to resolve without ‘upsetting’ others. There can be a high degree of altruism for sharing some data without considering it a legacy issue for them personally. They may not open up their match lists for review and their involvement can wane over time. Careful management is required to maintain interest but successful dialogue can move them to Level 5, especially adoptees and those with uncertain parentage who get to understand they will advance their cause much more quickly through collaboration. This is the main group of successful contacts you will deal with.

Level 3 – Neutrals; the second most likely group you will encounter. Some information exchange but disinterested in what DNA may offer, even if they have DNA tested themselves. Might allow access to a family tree if kept in private mode but have not taken the step of linking their DNA results to their family tree. May look at DNA sometime in the future if not tested. You may have to accept that you will not make much progress at this level, but you may get something. Thank them, leave your contact information, and move on. You may hear back from them one day.

Level 2 – This group can be hard to read and sometimes dismissive and even slightly rude in reply. Replies tend not to address the initial outreach, apparently not understanding the reason behind it. Can consider your approach to be a scam and therefore suspicious of you (sadly there are some scammers using family history websites, but it is not common as they can be reported and removed). More detailed follow ups often draw a blank and you soon will realise they are not worth time pursuing.

Level 1 – While rare, you do find people on family history and DNA websites who respond in an openly rude manner (which you can report). They seem affronted by the fact you contacted them in the first place. Whether they have DNA tested or not they express conspiracy theories and are deeply suspicious of certain ethnic groups and big corporations. It is always a surprise to get replies like this, unrelated to the topic at hand, but it is best not to engage with them. Like unsuccessful Level 2 replies, flag them in the match comments so you don’t contact them again.

Level 0 – This is the 99 per cent, ‘The Silent Majority’ who have an online presence but never respond for all the possible reasons discussed in that article.

In all your efforts with outreach, I wish you a happy New Year and the very best of luck!

Questions that can be answered as part of future articles can be emailed to or follow the West Cork DNA projects on Facebook ‘My Irish Genealogy & DNA’.

WCP Staff

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