Re: cold-calling potential relatives #general


Corin Goodwin wrote:
Here's my Problem for the Day:
I now have a short list of snail mail addresses or phone numbers for
people who are distantly related to me, or who might be. I have written
(snail mail) to one so far, and received no reply, even though I was
referred to her by my uncle, whom she knows. I have been in touch with
one other cousin by phone, but he was less than charming, and won't
reply to my emails either, even though he promised to send me quite a
bit of information (which he never did). I'm feeling a little gun-shy.
I know I should just go ahead and make some phone calls, since these
could be real, live relatives, or they could provide valuable leads, and
I also know that, in some cases, they may not be around for much longer,
but I can't help but feel a little afraid to intrude into people's
lives. Even the relatives I *do* know have been unwilling to discuss
genealogy or family history, so why should these folks who don't know me
at all?
Can anyone give me advice as to how to handle these kinds of phone
calls? How does one approach someone who has never heard of you and say,
"Hey, I think we're cousins!" or otherwise broach the subject?

I have read the many helpful comments submitted by fellow JewishGenners,
and I would like to add a few ideas:

1) Write first, even if you intend to follow up with a phone call.
There are several advantages to this approach.

--First, you will not catch the person "off guard." I think this can be
quite unsettling, especially for the elderly. In the U.S. we have a
problem of scam-artists calling the elderly with assorted, often
sophisticated, schemes to swindle them out of money. As a result, many
people are naturally suspicious of a complete stranger calling. If you
write in advance and establish minimal familiarity or at least a point of
reference, you have a better chance for a welcome reception.

--Second. By writing first, you are more likely to find a more
"prepared" caller. (Often, the recipient has actually phoned me, with
notes, documents, and thoughts organized.) At the very least, the person
has had a chance to mull over the topic at hand--not the case with a cold

2) Include a self-addressed return post card with your correspondence.

--The emphasis here is on the notion of a post card. Perhaps it is
merely coincidence, but I have had no success with the self-addressed
stamped envelope strategy. My guess is that the obstacle is not the
postage, but rather people are too busy to sit down and write a letter
these days. Instead, I request that they simply scrawl a sentence or two
on the card (as to whether there might be a family connection) and list
the best times and methods for further contact with them (i.e., phone,
fax, day, evening). Of course, I also provide the various methods of
reaching me--including e-mail. Curiously, no one has actually returned
the post card, but everyone who received one has called me!

3) This sort of correspondence can be a bit intimidating, so be
understated and somewhat reserved.

--Do not assume that the recipient is the correct person, even if you are
99% certain. I always begin by expressing the hope that I have reached
the intended individual. (Provide enough identifying info. such as son
of, born in X country.) This strategy solves a number of potentially
awkward situations, including the death of the addressee. It is not
uncommon in the U.S. for an elderly woman to maintain her phone and
address listings in her deceased husband's name.

--No, do not say we are long-lost cousins! Again, such language raises
suspicions about your motivations. Keep it low-key and general. Profess
ignorance. Something rather innocuous such as "I would like to learn
more about your (surname) family history." Also, I find that people
become anxious if you demand specifics too quickly. Inevitably, they
believe they have no helpful information. So I make it clear that I am
starting with a virtual blank slate, even the most rudimentary
information, such as the first names of family members, will surely
assist my research. Since you are asking for something more basic than
they imagined, they become more confident and start talking. Soon they
are filling in blanks and solving family mysteries without even realizing
what they are doing!

I hope these strategies are able to help someone!

Deborah Dworski
Arlington, Virginia U.S.A.


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