14 August 2013

Politeness in Genealogy -- You're Welcome to Thank Me, Please -- Guest post by Rhi Gibson (Genealogy for the Everyman)

Guest Blogger, Rhi Gibson (Genealogy for the Everyman)

"Hearts, like doors, open with ease. When we say thank you and if you please!" 
source: http://www.someecards.com/thinking-of-you-cards/phone-calls-ignore-not-return-check-in

This was said to me this week by a very good friend. She had planned a trip to some cemeteries near her and decided to check Find A Grave's request lists to see who needed a photo. Tramping through a large cemetery with no map to guide her, she was able to find 2 of the 5 stones that were on the list. After sending the photos, she had only one expectation: a thank you. Who wouldn't expect to be thanked for taking time out of their day to find something for someone else? Well, she wasn't thanked for her effort. And she's not alone. When did it get so hard for people to remember the simple niceties? My friend was understandably upset. Moreover, she felt that a person who doesn't remember "thank you" has no inclination to pay it forward by helping another. I wonder what the requester would think about that....

Mind your P's and Q's
source: http://www.someecards.com/thanks-cards/thanks-for-trying-to-behave-like
You will not know about every historical event that plays in the life of your ancestor. You won't know every technical term found in documents. You won't be able to get to every physical location of a repository or cemetery or whatever that you need. You won't always be able to read someone's handwriting or speak their language.....

In short, you will need the help of others. It's important that you take the time to be polite and helpful in your own way so that you will get back polite and helpful answers. "Please" and "thank you" should naturally flow from you before and after your requests. Whether you write, call or talk to someone in person shouldn't affect how you treat them. I mean, really, would you want someone to be curt with you when you need help? If all else fails, just pretend grandma is behind you judging how you treat other people. Make her proud.

So what universal manners should people reasonably expect you to embody?
  • Please and thank you. Those are so important, I can't stop talking about them. These two phrases are the basic starting point for acknowledging others and displaying your respect for them. Putting a "please" in your request makes it feel like less of a demand to most people. I have made it a habit to write a thank you note and get it in the mail the minute I get home from an interview, a meeting wraps up, a gift is given to me, or a favor is done for me. Doing it immediately means I can't forget. Forgetting to say "please" and "thank you" can lead to less people helping you the next time.
  • Acknowledge their time. People aren't just standing around waiting for you to come up with some way they can be helpful to you. When you call someone's place of business, keep your inquiries short and to the point. If you know you will need more detail than a short answer can give, ask them if they have the time to answer over the phone or if in person would be better. Assume they have a line of people standing in front of them waiting for them to get off the phone. If talking to someone in person, don't drag the conversation out just to hear your own voice. They might have other things they need to get done. And when you do complete your conversation, thank them for taking the time to talk to you! I don't care if it's a stay at home mom or a CEO, they have other people to deal with besides you and their time is precious.
  • Don't waste their time. If someone emails or calls you, respond in a timely manner. I reply to an email within two days. I may not be able to truly answer their questions in two days, but I'll at least tell them I've received their message and how long I expect to be. I don't want them waiting for weeks (or as one naughty friend did, years) to find out I can't help them. Imagine how you'd feel if you were to email a relative about your brick wall only to wait months to find out you need to call their sister.
  • Keep your promises. If you tell someone you are going to send them letters written by their ancestor, send them! If you RSVP in the positive for the family reunion, show up! And more than that, keep promises to yourself. If you are going to organise your research notes, do it. It all comes back to showing that you respect people's time, even your own.
  • Understand that you aren't the center of the universe. While I just got done telling you to respond to requests quickly, it's not acceptable for you to become impatient when waiting for their responses to your request. They have lives that they are living and sometimes things will slip through the cracks. Respond with understanding. Accept that they messed up, but don't call them on it. This is important for the individual as well as a company. Imagine being Ancestry and trying to please 2 million customers all the time, RIGHT NOW. When you send in a complaint or make an inquiry, they aren't getting it just from you. Even if only 10% of their customers ask that same question, that's 200,000 people. How pissed do you get when a kid (yours or otherwise) says "mom" ten times in a row? Patience is a virtue and all well-mannered people practice it.
Then there is this thing called "netiquette". That's Internet etiquette for those who don't know. Basic rules for minding your manners in the age of technology.
  • Avoid multiposting. Seriously, just check and see if someone already asked about it. And no, saying "sorry I'm just too lazy to scroll down" doesn't mean you aren't being rude. Most folks won't call you out on this if you do it once, though. It's the serial posters that really burn people's britches.
  • Avoid hijacking a discussion. It is unavoidable for someone to be reminded of a different topic or argument during a discussion. Try to stay on point, though. It's important that the original post not be lost to things that should and could be their own post. Like when Ancestry is posting about a Livestream event: it's okay to ask where to find archived videos. It's not okay to bitch about their transcriptions of the 1940 census. Start your own post for that. (Or check for one of the literally hundreds of threads already started on that subject) With that being said, it's just as rude to call someone out on hijacking your discussion, especially when the new topic is a tangent for your original post. If you ask how many people are in the largest tree on Ancestry, it's not rude for someone to point out that numbers aren't important. Just because you don't like the answer, doesn't mean the response was rude or off-topic.
  • Don't spam. So you're excited to share a story or trick you've learned in your research. Cool. Ten postings in a row, not cool. Posting off topic for the site, not cool. Long winded political or religious posts with no connection to genealogy, so not cool.
  • AVOID ALL CAPS. Unless you have a visual impairment requiring you to type in all caps, you look like you are shouting. Just don't do it. I CHALLENGE YOU TO NOT "HEAR" THIS IN YOUR HEAD AS A LOUDER "VOICE".
  • Know what you're talking about and make sense. This one has a lot of implications, but for me it's about making a coherent request when posting on a Facebook page or forum. I really want to help you, but a string of words and names with no rhyme or reason to them is of no help to me. This is where spelling comes into play. I understand autocorrect and typing quickly. I have typos on occasion. But if I need an interpreter to understand your "l33t speak", you've taken it too far. If u shrtn wurds 2 teh point that no1 will unnerstan n u dont punctuate yur runnonn sentances or use the wrong your/ you're/ they're/ there/ their/ where/ were/ we're making your sentence rediculous to reed....... expect the public shaming I'm sending your way. (I now apologise for my example. It was as painful for me to write as I'm sure it is for you to read)
  • Lurk on a page before joining a conversation. Any time you join a new group or forum, don't just start posting away! Spend a day or two reading what others post and how people respond. Get a feel for the community so that you have some idea how your posts will be received. And this is a good one in person as well. When you go to your first conference or meeting at your historical society, sit back and learn first. Don't start pontificating on your ancestry or suggesting new tricks to people who could be more experienced (or not) right off the bat. Find out if you will fit in before you start trying to fit in.
  • Post in public, expect the public to respond. If you have a question, complaint, inquiry or comment specific to one person or company, write them an email, call them or talk to them in person. If you post in a forum or public page and get mad when other users respond, you are a fool. And in my opinion, you did it on purpose to gain attention, not to get the supposed target of your post to respond.
Devil's Advocate

source: http://www.someecards.com/usercards/viewcard/011af0e768c6f3b6abc39ddd981eaf3b13
Did you know that the "thumbs up" sign that many of you would consider as meaning "okay" can mean something rudely sexual in some Islamic countries? That a palm facing out is a blessing to some, but is as rude as displaying your middle finger to others? Ever had a conversation on the phone where the speaker keeps asking you if you're there because you are so quiet? Or, conversely, asking you why you keep interrupting with an "uh-huh"? Often what one finds to be rude is a miscommunication or a difference of culture. I've heard folks say that politeness transcends culture..... well, no actually, it doesn't.

In many cultures, what we Americans consider "polite" is seen as keeping people at arm's length by others. It can also be considered dishonest and in it's own vein rude. And what's written in text can sound much better in one's head than when it's read by a stranger. (It would be so much easier if they'd invent that sarcasm font already) So while you may think you've given a polite reply, the person reading your post thinks you're the world's biggest blow-hard and will not hesitate to call you out on it!

It's so easy to assume everyone thinks like we do. Don't take this the wrong way, but they don't. I have had conversations with siblings that would make you think they grew up in different houses. And if you spend any time on Ancestry's Facebook page, you are going to find people complaining that their photos are taken by someone else. This complaint is especially common on their UK page. These posters complain that they have no desire to privatise their tree, but they want their publicly posted photos to have some sort of feature where they can't be saved to another tree or computer without their giving explicit permission. Usually the posts devolve to name-calling when someone points out that the user agreement doesn't even imply that contact needs to be made between users to save public photos, much less overtly state that. There should be something done, they say....... probably, but why is it that everyone else has to change to suit them? Why can't they just put a note that they have photos to share without adding the photos to the tree? And with that, they're off to the races and the conversation turns ugly.

My point is that everyone grew up differently. Even if you see no harm in something, others might. Be prepared for people to suggest you need to change your way of thinking. But on that same note, be prepared to NOT suggest other people change. I'm of the opinion that it is more rude to point out the rudeness of others than other people being rude. But this post will be the only time I accuse anyone of being rude. I'd rather suggest we look for the best in each other. My friend thinks that someone who doesn't say "thank you" doesn't do things for others. I'd rather believe it just slipped their minds this one time...... but I always remember to thank her to stay in good standing in her mind. I respect her enough to respect her opinion.

Maybe I'm Dutch.....

source: http://www.someecards.com/usercards/viewcard/MjAxMi1iZmE1MThjNDFhNzViN2Zh
I've heard from several people, that folks in the Netherlands are straight forward to the point of being considered rude. If you suggest something to improve their ways and they disagree, they'll tell you to stop being stupid. Imagine it. You tell someone you are the great great great great etc. granddaughter of Jesus and someone tells you to stop being stupid. I just imagined it and I can't stop laughing.

I write how I speak. I keep in mind the rule of treating people the way I want to be treated. I also remember to treat people online the same way I'd treat them in person. For that I am often accused of being a bully. Oh well. I can't for the life of me figure out how to tell someone that documents are needed to back up claims without hurting their feelings. If you want a tree without documentation, fine, but don't expect a pat on the back for finding your connection to Charlemagne. At least, not from me.

Below is a link to a blog called "Downwind of Amsterdam". The author closed the blog in 2004, but one paragraph hit home for me on his last post: "So then...this bluntness facilitates Peace? Yes. Yes, in fact I think it does. While a newcomer's first, unthinking temptation might be a fist fight, something else is actually going on. With a little practice one understands this: what is accomplished is exposure of subterfuge and misunderstanding into the bright glare, before they become dogma. In what might at first seem their gleeful pouncing on logical mistakes or misstatement, I think I sense 
a fear that someone might get carried away with a bad idea, that others might follow. Once you realize that it is meant to be defensive, you realize that it is not meant to be offensive. It is just straight talk."

And that's what I give: straight talk. I am not trying to bully someone into thinking like I do, but sometimes it would be a disservice to the genealogical community for me to allow misconceptions to continue. Believe me, I let slide more stupid comments than I correct. I've actually had friends tell me to "stop looking for the good in everyone." They mean it light-heartedly, I hope. When they are upset at the actions of another person, I often try to see that other side. I'm sure they wish I'd just agree with them that they are in the right, but it's not conducive to peace and good health. I'm not saying they are wrong....... I just know that there is another side to that coin..... who is currently telling their friends how crazy rude my friend was to them!

My dear friend who was the impetus of this post probably hoped to be reading a diatribe on how rude people are when they aren't thanking those who help them. And I do agree, people who forget to thank others are being rude. But I also hope that the person wasn't trying to be intentionally insulting. I like to believe that they are usually helpful, honest, kind people who remember the feelings of others. I try to remember that people have different ideas of "acceptable" behaviour. So I would like to end today's post with "Please remember to be kind to others and always assume the best of intentions from them. Thank you."

Thanks to Rhi for sharing this always relevant topic with Upfront with NGS. Another recent Upfront with NGS post about politeness in genealogy, Genealogy World -- Real Life -- Can we just all play "nicer" in this sandbox we share?

Editor’s Note: This subject was first posted 19 July 2013 on Genealogy for the Everyman

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  1. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you've said. Particularly the part about asking the same question that has already been asked - ad nauseum. I've left groups and lists on facebook, rootsweb, etc. specifically because of this.

    Now ... If I may play devil's advocate here for a second ... with the Find-A-Grave photos - how long did your friend wait before complaining of her thankless task? The reason I ask is because there have been times when I receive an email notifying me of a fulfilled request, but (provided I actually realize I've gotten the email) it can literally be WEEKS before I even have time to click the link to see which request it is. Of course, once I am able to log on, I always leave a thank you for the person who went out of their way to get the photo for me ... it just might take a little longer than is customary.

    Something to ponder.

  2. Rhi,

    Thank You :) Karen

  3. I went to a local cemetery on a photo request hunt. I didn't find the requester's grave, but I took over 150 photos of other stones that were in deteriorating conditions that are no relation to me. I have received at least 50 emails wanting me to do something to the memorial... change the date, the spelling, connect them to someone else, etc. and only ONE thank you in the bunch. Now, I don't even answer them, I just transfer the memorial to them.

  4. A lot of great advice there.. Thanks.