Genealogists have the potential to be incredibly rude. I know that Miss Manners would have thrown the book at me because of the mistakes I've made. So save yourself some pain—learn from my blunders.
Genealogists get so excited about collecting information about their ancestors that common sense sometimes goes out the window. They submit their data to a genealogy website (or build their own)-and they publish it ALL. In this age of identity theft, posting a living person's name, birth date and mother's maiden name is a major no-no. If your living relatives have entrusted their personal information to you, do not assume that you have permission to share it online or with your newly found fourth cousin. After you have shared your private data, you no longer control its fate and, most likely, it is no longer private.
Most genealogy software databases give you the option to hide information about living people when you create a GEDCOM file to share. If your program doesn't, you can use a simple filter to exclude anyone born within the past 100 years. This way, you can share relevant genealogical data but still preserve your family's privacy.
Genealogists who do hundreds of hours of research often get cranky when they graciously share all of their work with a curious cousin and then later find that data published all over creation without a hint of where it came from. Worse yet are those who intentionally or unintentionally claim someone else's work as their own. It may be your family tree, but that data is the researcher's blood, sweat, and tears. Even if all that you are doing is putting together a small booklet for a family reunion, always mention who did the legwork on each family line—not only out of respect, but also for proper documentation. Some serious researchers will refuse to give out large chunks of information because of this problem or because they want to publish their research in a copyrighted book.
Fortunately, most genealogists I've encountered are interested in finding the truth and believe that sharing information supports that goal. These folks usually aren't as interested in getting credit for their work, yet they are passionate about passing on correct source information. If, in your own research, you learn of a new addition or an error on a family line, you can go back and notify the original source—but only if you've documented who that source is.
How can documentation-listing the documents that lead you to all those birth and death dates-become an issue of manners? It's great fun to find a new cousin with new information, but when that information conflicts with yours, how can you tell which information to trust? If you don't have accurate citations that point back to the original documents you pulled your information from, you have the ingredients for a potential family feud. If you and your new cousin can compare actual source notes, it is far easier to determine which source is more reliable. From there, you can decide which information is most likely to be true.
A few years back, I used to get unsolicited mail from people who learned that I was searching the same surname that they were. Those letters read something like this:
"My great-grandmother was Jane SMITH born 1901. I've learned that you are researching the SMITH family. Do you know anything about my great gram?"
Well, Smith—even Jane Smith—is a pretty common name, so 99% of the time my exasperated response was: Sorry, never heard of her. Then I'd add in a few research tips, such as advising the writer to check the census and order a copy of Jane Smith's birth certificate.
Now, most of these requests come through e-mail. The e-mails that I most appreciate show more than just a surname connection. They show at least a geographic connection, and some good names and dates. I'd do my best to respond to this one:
I am researching the CODSWALLUP family of Woodbury County, Iowa. I've noticed that your research shows a John and Mary CODSWALLUP with a son, Fred, born about 1885. Is it possible that your Fred CODSWALLUP is the same one that married Sarah SNICKLEFRITZ in 1907 in Monona County, just south of Woodbury?
Realize that not everyone will be excited about you uncovering the truth about family origins and family secrets. My most painful genealogical memory involved a great aunt who expressed interest in my research into our family origins in Europe. When I learned that the surname was historically associated with a specific ethnic group, I excitedly wrote to this aunt. I was not aware of her strong biases against this ethnic group, and she was insulted by my discovery. She called me after she received my letter, told me my research was a lie, and then proceeded to personally insult me. I was floored. She then cut off all further contact with me. The best I could do was to send flowers to her funeral when she passed on.
A public example of this same situation involves the descendants of Thomas Jefferson—the statesman who authored our nation's freedoms. Many had a difficult time accepting that Thomas Jefferson (or one of his close relatives) had a relationship with Jefferson's slave, Sally Hemmings. For generations this relationship was denied, until genetic proof was published that clearly connects Sally Hemmings's descendants to the Jefferson family.
As you do research, you may find that some family members do not want to know things about their family that are historically correct—albeit morally objectionable—such as slave ownership, illegitimate births, or criminal behavior. Genealogy is about the pursuit of historic truths in your family tree; a true genealogist is fascinated with every thread of history they can find-the good and the bad. Other members of your family may not be prepared to handle the truth, so you may need to be cautious what sharing family information that includes touchy subjects.
Genealogy is fascinating to me, but it bores the socks off of some of my friends and family members. When discussing family history with the easily bored, stick to small, bite-sized facts that leave them hungry for more. If you have an obsessed gardener in the family, you could briefly mention that her great-grandfather was also an obsessed gardener and leave it at that. Who knows—you might spark her curiosity on the subject. Even fellow genealogists can become bored listening to endless stories about people who they have no connection with, so keep stories about your discoveries brief, relevant and interesting.
Workshops and classes on genealogy are enriched by helpful comments-perhaps about obscure sources or unusual research techniques and a brief illustration of how you used these to reach your goals—but save the six-generation narrative for your book.
Inevitably, all genealogists make mistakes. If you've made an etiquette mistake, try to make it right immediately, and then move on. You don't want to burn any bridges that you might need to cross in the future. Even Miss Manners would tell you that.