‘Tis the Season to Ask for Spit

‘Tis the Season to Ask for Spit

by Kerry Scott on 18 November 2013

Post image for ‘Tis the Season to Ask for Spit

You know what’s awkward? Emailing strangers and asking them to spit into a tube for you.

Like this:

Dear Cousin,

Hi! You might not remember me, but I’m that genealogist who emailed you in 2010. We’re third cousins, twice removed, on your mom’s side. 

I don’t know if you know this, but since we last spoke, my genealogy friends and I have all gotten into this new thing: DNA testing. It’s where you spit into a tube (or maybe swab your cheek with a giant Q-tip), and then you send the thing off to a lab. A month later, you get a list of your cousins. I did this a long time ago, so I have a very long list of cousins…but I have no idea how they’re related to me. Since I DO know how you’re related to me, I’m wondering if I can have you spit in this tube, so I can see which ones are also related to you. It would be super helpful.

See? Awkward.

I was an early adopter on the whole DNA thing, so I’ve been looking at lists of cousins for years. I’ve had a couple of easy matches (because Holthusen is the best surname in the history of the universe. If you have Holthusens from Calumet County, Wisconsin, we’re related. The end.). Mostly, though, I have a bunch of people whose connection I can’t figure out. It’s frustrating. So what I really need is for known cousins to test, so I can triangulate (i.e. see who we have in common, which tells me which line we might be related on). But I can’t even begin to imagine how weird it is to get a request like that if you’re not a genealogist.

Right now Family Tree DNA is running a special through 31 December where you do the $99 Family Finder test, and they give you a gift certificate for $100 to a restaurant website (which they started exactly two days AFTER I ordered a kit for one agreeable cousin, so that sucked). Family Tree DNA is by far my favorite site for ease-of-use, so that works for me. I’m figuring out which cousins I want to approach, then telling them if they do the test they can keep the restaurant gift certificate. I’m hoping that’s enough of a lure to get at least a couple of them to test, because having someone to triangulate against would be a HUGE help on a number of these lines.

Have you approached non-genealogy cousins and asked them to do a DNA test? What sort of reaction did you get?

DISCLAIMER: I have no connection to Family Tree DNA, other than as a customer who likes the fact that they have a triangulation too. I wish Ancestry and 23andMe had one. This whole exercise is kind of futile without it. 

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Jacqi Stevens November 18, 2013 at 9:54 pm

Kerry, I did try getting one relative to do a DNA test: my brother. He is the only surviving male in my father’s line–and nearly 20 years older than I am–so I was really desperate for him to say yes. It just so happened that there was this great genealogy conference being held about a 10 minute drive from his home, and I happened to know that Family Tree DNA (my preferred provider, too) would have a booth there in the conference exhibit hall.

I don’t think I got any unusual reactions from either my brother or the Family Tree DNA rep (it just so happened to be Bennett Greenspan, himself, who was quite gracious in helping me connect the exhibit hall schedule with my brother’s busy schedule). I think the only one who had an unusual reaction was the woman manning the next exhibit booth. You see, my brother, an actor and comedian who has done several cartoon voices for productions over the years, took a seat at the Family Tree DNA booth and was hamming it up royally while swabbing the side of his cheek. I thought that woman was going to call the cops, she was so alarmed at my brother’s crazy antics. Bet she never saw a DNA test go down quite like that before!

By the way, I’ll offer some of my surnames as competition for best-surname-in-the-history-of-the-universe. Admittedly, Holthusen has its up side. But try Aktabowski on for size. Or Gramlewicz. There aren’t too many of them out there. Anywhere. Even in Poland.


Kerry Scott November 19, 2013 at 10:30 am

I’m amused at the idea of a spectacle in the FTDNA booth. Serves the stuffy lady in the next booth right!


Debi Austen November 19, 2013 at 9:42 am

I want to join in the competion for the best surname – Gunzendorfer. There were only two families in the U.S. – one in California (mine) and one in New York. I’m 95% certain the two families are related but just can’t completely connect the dots. And I have to admit that my mother WAS right, there are no more Gunzendorfers in the United States today.

I haven’t ventured out into the DNA world…….yet.


Kerry Scott November 19, 2013 at 10:28 am

Dooooo it. You know you want to. All the cool kids are doing it.

(Wait. I feel like I’m trying to get you to smoke in the girls’ bathroom).


Ginger Smith November 19, 2013 at 10:55 am

Hi Kerry, you and I are in the same boat it seems. I have just started thinking about all the cousins I need to start asking to submit their DNA to *my* cause. I did learn, however, that several of them have already done DNA tests! No one bothered to tell me though. And many tested with a different company (just a slight inconvenience).

I would recommend that you start a surname project with ftDNA and invite all of your relatives and your matches that connect on a certain surname (or simply those who are just related to you) to join. That way you will have access to all of their accounts without having to enter their kit ids and passwords in every time. Also, ftDNA has a report function that will show you who is a match to whom within your project, which is a very helpful tool.

I don’t restrict my project to just one surname because I’ve found that they are inevitably going to be related to each other on different surnames too. That’s just the nature of the beast and I like capturing that.

Good luck and have fun!


Kerry Scott November 19, 2013 at 4:51 pm

So you can have a group that is just, like, “Ginger’s Peeps,” where you can track the people you’re working with, regardless of which line they end up being related on?

If so, that’s REALLY cool.


Ginger Smith November 19, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Yes. But you have to make it somewhat legitimate when you apply for a project. I would take a look around to see if there are any projects with your surname already out there. If not, go ahead and pick it. Then when you write your description, describe that your project pertains to that surname but many also contain collateral lines.

Then stuff all your cousins and relatives in that project once you get it set up. I try to manage all my cousins’ data for them so they aren’t hassled with it. Then if you find your project starts following a trend like “all the Smiths of southern Alabama” then you can change your project name after it’s already set up.

Mine was originally a Y-DNA project. So I’ve been matching up the Family Finder data with the Y-DNA data. That’s pretty cool! But there is also a bunch of overlap between Y-DNA subgroups since we have 3 sets of UNRELATED Godwins who lived in the same area at the same time. (They tended to intermarry)….


Michelle Goodrum November 20, 2013 at 2:54 pm

This is exactly what I need to do Ginger! I learn soooo much about DNA from you.


Elroy Davis November 19, 2013 at 11:01 am

I haven’t taken the DNA leap yet either. I’d be hard-pressed to ask someone else to take a test, when I can’t even convince my self to take one. There’s something about filing my DNA with a company that I find creepy and disturbing. The rational part of my brain is okay with the idea, but the rest of me has seen too many bad sci-fi movies I think. I guess if I ever come up with an argument to convince myself to take a test, that I’ll be able to use that same argument on relatives.


Kerry Scott November 19, 2013 at 4:50 pm

I have heard of people using fake names for this reason. I don’t sweat this particular threat so much, but I’m completely paranoid about those loyalty cards where they track your purchases. We all have our boogeymen.


JL Beeken November 19, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Yep, I asked an 83 year old uncle and he said something (don’t remember the exact words) designed to end the conversation before it started.

So, that leaves his son and his two sons. There’s a brick wall in this line that can’t be solved any other way. Truly. If those 3 go it’s over.


Kerry Scott November 19, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Three people…those are still decent odds. I’m working with all distant cousins, so there’s only one per line (and they’re distant enough that they may not show up as matches even if we’re related). My closer relatives are not an option for various reasons, so I’m crossing my fingers for those third cousins once removed.


Lauren Mahieu November 19, 2013 at 4:45 pm

Kerry, I did approach my mother’s cousin, as I wanted to do a Y-DNA test, and had a long speech prepared to explain the process/purpose, etc. Shockingly, he didn’t require any coercion or long explanations – was happy to do so. :-)


Kerry Scott November 19, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Wow. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were all that easy?


Lyne November 20, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Kerry, I’m with you on the loyalty cards. I’ll give up the discount before my personal info. Coincedentaly, my husband just took a Ancestry DNA test. On his line that goes back to early California Spanish/Mexican hertitage (pre 1848) there’s a guy that’s either two people or one guy with two families. Three us us have been trying to figure this out for 3 years. My husband and one other cousin are descended from the legitimate wife and and another cousin from the second wife. Hopefully this will give us the answer so we can sort out which person is entitled to the mentions in the history books or wether he was a scoundrel. Yay for science!


Kerry Scott November 20, 2013 at 12:39 pm

It’ll be interesting to see what you find out. I often wonder what all of these scoundrels who died thinking they got away with it would say if they could see what’s going on now.


Michelle Goodrum November 20, 2013 at 2:59 pm

Looks like I missed the part about the $100 restaurant gift certificate when I was on the ftdna website last night. Heading back there now cause you just showed me how I might be able to lure a couple of “cousins” into providing a DNA sample. Snicker…… Now to figure out how to word the email


Kerry Scott November 20, 2013 at 3:21 pm

It really is helpful. If you’re saying, “Look, I’ll pay for this, I’ll manage it, I’ll keep you anonymous if you want, and you get this $100 gift card,” it’s compelling. At least, I hope it is.


Jana Last November 22, 2013 at 12:47 pm


I have done my own cheek swap thing to test my DNA using FT-DNA, but I’ve never asked a non-genealogist cousin to do a DNA test. You’re way braver than me. =)

Actually, my mom has shown an interest in doing a DNA test. I should make sure she orders it before the end of the year. Then she can take us all out to dinner. LOL!! Seriously though, that $100 gift card is a great incentive for requesting a DNA test kit. Keep us posted on how many cousins accept your offer.

I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/11/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-november-22.html

Have a great weekend!


Kerry Scott November 25, 2013 at 8:42 am

So far, one accepted right away. The other hasn’t opened the Facebook message yet (I don’t have an email address for him, he’s rarely on Facebook, so I’m hoping he randomly logs on soon). I have a couple of others I will likely approach this week (although I was hoping to hear from the second one first, because my budget is not unlimited).


Jana Last November 22, 2013 at 12:47 pm

Oh, by the way, that should be “cheek swab thing” not “cheek swap thing.” Oops!


Lisa Sullivan Taisey November 22, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Loved the article. Last week I asked my 80 year old Uncle to do a DNA test and I would pay for everything. He agreed to but I have a feeling he has no idea what it means. No cable TV, no dishwasher, no computer among his simple way of living. Thanks for a good laugh for today!


Susan Partlan November 23, 2013 at 12:39 pm

I did ask the one living member of my immediate family who could help prove a relationship to the line I believe is my father’s but he declined. No DNA test. Strangers might actually be more open to the idea than close relatives, depending on your family.


Kerry Scott November 25, 2013 at 8:39 am

That is definitely true in my family too. When it’s people you know, there are all sorts of dynamics that factor in. When it’s a stranger, it’s a lot more cut-and-dried.


Susan Partlan November 23, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Oh, and I did offer to pay for the test.


Kathleen Starr January 20, 2014 at 3:05 am

I decided to get over the awkwardness of asking someone to do a DNA test after a great aunt passed away while I was dithering. I have now tested 13 people. I would like to do many more. Just waiting for the next sale. I have had a SNP paid for me. Unfortunately the test was negative. The people I have trees for have lots of matches but the ones that don’t have hardly any matches. When I do get a match it is very frustrating to have my email bounce back because they have not kept their address updated.
I received the $100 gift certificate but as I live in Australia it is of no use to me. The $10 discount for putting up your family tree is good though.


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