22 November 2012

You Have Two Ears And One Mouth

So the post before last was about how to get your family to open up to you about events in their lives. I cautioned you against pushing an issue too far and running rough shod over their feelings. The emotions of others can be overly sensitive and extremely hard to predict. Trying to build the trust that gets you into their innermost confidences doesn't happen overnight. And it is so easy to lose their trust with a misplaced word or action. One of the best ways to guarantee no one will ever want to confide in you is to blab the family gossip at every turn. The most likely time any person is likely to slip up is during a family get together like the holiday season.

Personally, I see no point in many of the secrets people try to keep. Yes, there are good reasons. Everyone can think up a legitimate reason why something needs to be hidden. But as a genealogist, many of those secrets become stumbling blocks to the truth. They aren't walls, really. They are annoyances that may obscure the facts for years, decades..... maybe a lifetime or two if you're lucky. However, genealogy is a persistent science that is ever evolving and becoming more efficient. What would've required months of snail-mail and guesswork can now be figured out in a few hours if not a few days with a greater chance of accuracy on initial attempts. With the help of the internet and my widespread friends worldwide, from the comfort of my home and local repositories, I can now follow my ancestors over hill, over dale, across the waters where genealogical bloodhounds of old would lose the scent. As I mentioned in the other post, that which my family thought was hidden was relatively easy to find in plain sight. Not that the waste of time taking the long route doesn't annoy. Like watching a suspenseful crime drama, I often wonder why innocent witnesses don't just come out with all their information in the first interview. They are belligerent and obstructive to the investigation. But the detectives always get it out of them in the end of the hour. For me, it has become wearisome to sit across from a relative who knows more than they are telling when you both know that that's what they are doing. But their are no escalators to Heaven. One must use the stairs.

Over the last year of my blog (happy first anniversary!), I have tried to instill a sense of procedure in you, my dear Reader. Start with yourself. Start with what you know. Move to the living relatives and what they know. Use maiden names for women. Source your tree and cite your sources. Make this obsession your own and savor it... At every turn on this journey, I have given you license to do this as you please, as long as the basic framework of genealogy is there. You can live your life as you please, as long as you allow for the basic niceties of life. I have reminded you about saying "Please" and "Thank You". I have asked you to meditate on the fact that you aren't the lone descendant and that the opinions of others must be taken into account. I hope that you have taken my advice to heart. You need to walk that mile in your ancestor's shoes to get a better idea of the how's and why's of their life. You need to see through the eyes of another before you can ever get them to see through yours.

If you can't accept the difference of opinion (or at least respect it), then the basic framework of a working relationship is not there. You will not develop the closeness of a familial bond so very necessary for open and honest communication. And as the old saying goes, "you have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you speak." You need to become an active listener. Anyone can hear what is going on around them, but it takes a real effort to listen. To absorb the information presented verbally and nonverbally. To process it and have a real conversation between equals. You're not an attorney grilling a witness. You're their relative and friend. What would you want your friend to do for you? Listen to what you say and respond accordingly perhaps? Maybe not glaze over and formulate their response for when you finish speaking? I'm sure you'd like them to let you finish your own sentences. And you certainly wouldn't want them to go trotting off with that story and tell all and sundry if you just got done telling them you wanted it to be between the two of you.

It's hard for a genealogist to keep mum. We spend so much time digging in the dirt, that sometimes we can't help but crow when we find that precious gem of information. But it isn't about us, is it? Family is a living, breathing, growing organism made up of a multitude. You are one cell in that organism. And while I am a bit of an egoist, even I have to admit that I may not be anything more than an epithelial. I told you about my 100 year box. I have found it a very effective visual tool for those who are reticent to part with vital information. But what truly speaks volumes about my worth as a co-conspirator is the volumes I don't speak. The stories that family know I know that aren't brought up (vs. the hundreds of truly entertaining stories that I share freely) are evidence of my ability to respect the feelings of others. The "truths" I will publicly accept are the price I pay for the private confessions.

So the holiday season is upon us and we find ourselves visiting family a bit more (hopefully). We take the time to remember more than just our parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. We reach out to the 3rd cousin once removed and the great uncle in the nursing home that can't remember if we are the one he liked or if it was our brother. We take this opportunity to meet in person the relations our research has discovered. A genealogist always has a sense of family, but no more so than during this time of the year. My last post was about making the visits fun and informative to spark more sharing. Making games is always a good way to get the less than enthused involved in telling their tales. And finding an exciting way to present your new finds keeps family from considering your research as dry and boring. Sometimes, however, you will have a truly juicy story or notorious relative that you simply musn't talk about. The only way to know if the information will be well received is to have that close personal relationship with each family member. You must put in as much time with each living relative as you put into your research of the dead ones (if not more). And if you have any reason to believe that Auntie will be upset to hear that her great grandfather was the most prolific slave trader in all of Georgia, maybe you should let it be.

If you go around raking the muck, all you get is dirty,


  1. Excellent and on point! ~ Joy

  2. Hiya! Were you able to fulfill all the settings of your site by yourself or you turned to professionals to get some help?

    1. My apologies for the lateness of this reply. I've been fighting internet woes for some time now. As for my site, I did the settings all myself, which is why sometimes I still end up with a hiccup or two in formatting. I have considered professional help, but have enjoyed the hands on feeling of doing it myself too much to farm out the work.