August 23, 2001
I know that you are asking what do noses and faces have to do with genealogy? That figure of speech "cutting off your nose to spite your face" seems apropos in genealogy, especially online genealogy. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that when we are online, we are all faceless so we often don't stop to think that some of our words might be hurtful.
Two Dimensional Communication
While the Internet brings us into contact with researchers from all over the world, this two dimensional communication does have its drawbacks. Some of them are related to the fact that it is harder to discern emotion through the written word, especially when those words are not always properly thought out or reread before sending. Other drawbacks are related to the fact that the reader cannot see your face or body movements, so they cannot tell if you are joking or indeed going for the jugular.
I think this two dimensional communication also shields us. No one knows who we are, not really. We are anonymous to a degree. By the same token, the person you are about to spew forth your words upon is not a real person. They are a name on the screen. In our subconscious thinking they are a machine, like our computer, incapable of feelings. This is, of course, a misconception. And while the child's rhyme says that "words never hurt you," if you have ever read a negative message directed at you, you know that isn't true.
Would You Say it in Person?
One of the tricks that I have come to rely on, whenever I am composing a message to send online is to stop and ask myself if I would say it that way if the person was standing in front of me. If I would, then I go ahead and send it. This doesn't mean the person receiving it will not see something negative, but I know that I still recognized them as a person. I didn't think of them as an automaton or an object that feels nothing. I took the time to understand that my comments might affect the way they feel.
The next time you feel the urge to fire off a message filled with criticism, stop to think about this. Would you say it the the same way if they were standing in front of you? Then go back and reread your message. Is it constructive criticism? Is it a comment backed up by facts and cited sources to prove your point? Or is it intended simply to vent?
We Need Each Other
I often joke in my lectures that genealogists love company. The more genealogists we find the more normal our obsession looks. We need each other in a more tangible way, though, because we need each other to pursue our research.
I cannot hope to find out everything on my family tree by myself, can I? Think about it, we routinely rely on the research of others, in the form of published genealogies, transcribed records, and family history Web sites. I know that I also rely on the knowledge and expertise of fellow researchers. Help from other researchers has saved me from making some costly mistakes throughout my own research (for example, mistakes in drawing conclusions from records). Without them I would be much further behind in my research than I am today.
The next time you feel you have been wronged, don't immediately react to that hurt feeling. Don't fire off a message to the offender, who often doesn't even realize he or she has offended you. Think about what you want to say, compose it and then ask yourself if you would say it that way if they were standing in front of you.
So many times individuals spend countless hours and dollars in compiling information, which they then send out to fellow cousins only to be slapped down for their effort. Think how you would feel if it were your hard work that was being summarily dismissed. Don't cut off the proverbial nose, see if there is a better way that you can handle things. Perhaps you can acknowledge the hard work of the other person before gently pointing out how your research disagrees or how you have drawn a different conclusion. Keep the lines of communication open, so that all genealogy continues to benefit.The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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