Hi, you share a name with my brother and are probably related to us
March 20, 2013 10:18 PM   Subscribe

My brother shares his name with one other person in the world (as far as we can tell from Google anyway). This man is probably related to us. Should we write to him? If so, what should we say?

We have a very uncommon surname, uncommon to the point that I am the only person with my name, despite my first name (and my brother's) being reasonably common in the part of central Europe where our surname originates. Pretend my brother's called Mark Tincan or something. Yesterday, we were talking and my brother mentioned he'd googled himself and clicked on the other Mark Tincan's result. So I did the same. Because the other Mark Tincan lives in Austria, his company bio lists his birth place, which seemed oddly familiar. Stuck that into Google Maps and the penny dropped. He was born within 20km of where my dad's relatives we know almost nothing about lived. Assuming our uncommon surname isn't bizarrely common in that tiny corner of the world, he's probably related to us and he may have a still living relative who met our paternal grandfather.

So why write to this guy? I think I'm secretly hoping that this guy will be able to explain why we have a surname that appears to obviously belong to ethnic group A when, as far as anyone knows, we inherited this name from people belonging to ethnic group B. Which is a totally unrealistic expectation and not even something you'd ask a perfect stranger you found on the internet. On the other hand, assuming he's related to us, he (or his relatives) may be the best bet of finding anything out about my dad's family. And I'm kind of curious, despite really not knowing any of my dad's paternal relatives, if only so people of group A stop looking at me like I'm crazy when I have to try to explain to them that as far as I know, I got my name from group B (and then they're disappointed because people of group A are fairly uncommon in North America).

Suppose we write to him. What do we say? Explain that he shares a name with my brother, obviously. Explain why we think we might be related to him and thus decided to write to him. Do we explain who we are so he doesn't think we're crazy people from the internet? (If he's ever googled himself, he presumably knows my brother exists. I have a university webpage, which lends me an air of credibility.) What do we ask? 'Do you happen to know if your grandparents had any siblings who disappeared off to North America and were never heard from again, aside from that time one showed up with a kid for a few years?' (I deduced the last bit from the Ellis Island records. My dad didn't know his father had gone back and forth at least once, to give you some idea of how little my dad's relatives talk about their lives)

I realise there's bound to be an etiquette for this among genealogy people. But I'm not a genealogy person and internet genealogy hits a dead end beyond the Ellis Island records anyway. You'd have to go to one of country A or B to figure out who my great-great-grandparents were. (But who knows which country got which records in the zillion times the land changed hands in the twentieth century.)
posted by hoyland to Human Relations (30 answers total)
my name is "Karaszewski". Some random film writer seems to be the only person in the US with that name that I don't know. I've never tried to get in contact with him. So what if you're related form five generations back? What's that going to amount to?
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:27 PM on March 20, 2013

I think its a perfectly reasonable and understandable query on your part. His response is really going to depend on his personality and interest in the discussion (he may just be anti-social, shy, etc). There is nothing unusual about your interest (in my opinion) so cannot be offended...I would start very simply and let him know you share a name, have some family from the area and would like to figure out if he might be a relation. As the conversation progresses, you can offer other details about your family history, and if any resonate with him, he can speak up.
posted by grassbottles at 10:28 PM on March 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

I am into genealogy and I've spent a lot of time researching my maternal grandmother's unusual surname (McKern). I've sent and received many "are we related" inquiries over the years.

Re genealogy etiquette - there is an expectation that you will share your research. So, along with your questions, include what you already know about your family.

Re what to ask - "Do you happen to know if your grandparents had any siblings who disappeared off to North America and were never heard from again, aside from that time one showed up with a kid for a few years?" is a good place to start. Hold off on questions regarding ethnicity until you can be reasonably sure that he won't take offense.

Good luck with your research.
posted by she's not there at 11:11 PM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have a pretty uncommon last name (or at least, the spelling is uncommon) and I've received one of the emails that you're describing. It was from someone who said he had done some googling, came across me, and wondered if we were related. He gave a little bit of history and also sort of introduced himself. My father-in-law does genealogy and was able to tell me that yes, in fact, we are related. I wrote back and said hi and explained the connection. It didn't really go much further than that, but honestly it was a nice little exchange. I'm glad that he wrote and that we had the chance to connect. I don't see what the downside is with your emailing, and hopefully he'll be open and receptive and you can learn more about your family!
posted by Bella Sebastian at 11:32 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

My surname is so uncommon we literally are nearly all related. My dad was big into this and whenever he was based somewhere else for a while he would reach out to others in the area with our surname. Never went badly, always interesting. Sometimes people didn't have much idea/interest in the genealogy stuff, no biggie.
posted by smoke at 12:21 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

smoke, you could be me (s/dad/mum). I think it would be nice to get in touch and say you're doing a little amateur genealogy.
posted by katrielalex at 2:37 AM on March 21, 2013

I was in contact with a guy from Alberta, Canada who had an extra letter in his last name that mine didn't have. Apparently my grandfather flew out to meet him to learn more about his genealogy. He gave me the names of the neighboring provinces of Ukraine to which our respective lineages are connected. Very valuable information, and I wouldn't have gotten it otherwise because my grandfather died ten years ago of alzheimers.

Write this guy a long email while it's still on your mind. You never know what you'll learn, or if it's too late. Also, and this is unlikely, but maybe you'll end up flying out there and having dinner with the guy should you actually be connected somehow, which I guess is what my grandfather did?
posted by oceanjesse at 4:16 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Do it before everyone is dead that could ever tell you anything.
posted by oceanjesse at 4:17 AM on March 21, 2013 [12 favorites]

I'd write. If he doesn't respond, you've lost nothing. If he does and you're related, you've gained yourself another family member.

(For what it's worth, I've sent a million cold genealogy emails over the years, and people are generally incredibly nice about this sort of thing. I'm consistently surprised about how kind people are...)
posted by youandiandaflame at 4:49 AM on March 21, 2013

Go ahead and write, you've got nothing to lose. Make it a polite, friendly note: explain why you're writing, and include a detailed family tree showing how you think you might be connected. Make sure to also include your contact info!

(Oh, and about sharing a complete name --- 'Mark Tincan', exactly like your brother, as opposed to 'Steve Tincan' --- that means nothing more than just sharing a last name does: it's only the family name that matters, the first name is probably just a coincidence. After googling myself, for instance, I know of at least six other people in the US alone with my complete first, middle and last names, none of whom are related to me.)
posted by easily confused at 4:59 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are three of me: me, a guy in Portland who does planning for the airport, and a guy who's something like a fourth or fifth cousin.

I "met" the former of these when his wife emailed me in the mid 90s. I was the only person with our last name that had any online presence (University web page). There were also other people in New Zealand (no Chris-es, though) with the same surname who wrote me.

I met the latter of my name-twins at REI one day. I was checking out, and gave my member number. Instead of reciting my name back as usual, the clerk was silent, and when I handed him my credit card, he took it and excused himself. He walked over to the other bank of cash registers and I heard him say to one of the other clerks, "Chris, I think someone's trying to steal your identity." The other clerk turned to me, said, "Christian ***? I'm Christopher ***. Pleased to actually meet you."

By all this I mean to say, by all means write the name-twin. At the very least it's an interesting lark.
posted by notsnot at 5:26 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would write them!

One thing to be aware of, if your ancestors came to the US via Ellis Island and you had a difficult last name, is they probably butchered it. That is why my last name is spelled different in America compared to the country of origin (in fact, I doubt people with my last name are related because of the multiple changes its gone through over a couple generations). This could explain the ethnicity thing as well, along with the generally crappy written records of up to ~50 years ago or so. And miscommunication was rampant -- for ex, my grandmother grew up believing her name to be one thing. When she saw her birth certificate for the first time a few years ago, she found out her legal first name is similar to, but distinctly different from the name her parents told her it was. Nobody knows if it was the nurses trying to Biblicize the name or what -- point is, errors occur and unnecessarily complicate these things.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:45 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

As far as I can tell, I'm the only me out there. I married into a family with an unusual name--the story is that someone stole a horse a few generations ago and changed the spelling to hide. We went ahead and bought lastname.com and we periodically hear from distant cousins. It's always fun, especially if you come from a small extended family.
posted by wallaby at 5:47 AM on March 21, 2013

(Oh, and about sharing a complete name --- 'Mark Tincan', exactly like your brother, as opposed to 'Steve Tincan' --- that means nothing more than just sharing a last name does

Yeah, it's the combination of surname and the birthplace that make us suspect we might be related to him. We just found him because they share a first name and no one had ever clicked his Google result until yesterday.
posted by hoyland at 6:41 AM on March 21, 2013

As far as Google can tell, there's only one other person out there with my exact name. We've never communicated, although I'm sure we're related somehow.

I have exchanged emails with a more distant relation who has a variant of my last name. He had a bunch of research on our family's genealogy and I was able to fill him in on some new developments in our branch of the family tree.

As far as contacting this person, why not? You may not thinking of yourself as a "genealogy person", but you are tracking down a piece of your family history. It doesn't really hurt to try.
posted by tdismukes at 6:47 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a fairly unusual last name hereabouts, and whenever I've come across anyone who shares it I tend to bound over to them (or email them) and say hello and ask them when their family came to this country.

I found one person who shares my brother's exact name, so I just said hi and friended him on Facebook. He doesn't think it's as funny as I do, but he's cool with it.

So why write to this guy? I think I'm secretly hoping that this guy will be able to explain why we have a surname that appears to obviously belong to ethnic group A when, as far as anyone knows, we inherited this name from people belonging to ethnic group B.

When I came across someone with my exact name, we had that whole conversation. She was blonde and Christian and I didn't understand how she could be related to me, since my family is a bunch of curly-haired brunette Jews. Turned out she pronounces the name differently, and our theory is that during one of the many waves of antisemitism in the old country her side of the family must have hidden and assimilated when mine fled instead.

tl;dr - I've had a bunch of good experiences reaching out on this sort of thing. Go for it!
posted by 168 at 7:30 AM on March 21, 2013

Of course, go for it. Include what you know about your family history (names/dates/etc) but leave out the question of the ethnicity for now. And be open to whatever possible replies that you might get, including NO reply. I just want to point that out - a single query is fun and interesting; don't keep badgering him if he chooses not to reply or participate, just let it go.
posted by CathyG at 8:07 AM on March 21, 2013

Back at the dawn of the internet, like 1990, we had Prodigy as our ISP and you could search for other Prodigy subscribers based on their names. My mom's way into genealogy and found a dude in California with our uncommon (at least outside of der Vaterland) surname and shot him an e-mail. Turns out he was something like second cousins twice removed from my dad and had a son living in our general area. He was visiting his son one day and called us from a payphone to see if he could stop by and meet the family. It was really cool! I'm this 10-year-old girl from the middle of nowhere Illinois and here's this dude who looks just like Lou Reed but with my dad's nose banging his turquoise rings on our table around the plate of cold cuts. We exchanged Christmas cards for a number of years and I think my mom still gets the odd e-mail from him. So in summary, what's to lose?! You might meet someone cool.
posted by jabes at 8:33 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have an incredibly common first and last name, and still think it's pretty cool when I come across someone with the same name, so, yeah, I'd go for it. Make your initial email simple, no long explanation or backstory:
Hi John Smith. My name is John Smith, too, and I'm wondering if we're related?
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:53 AM on March 21, 2013

The proximity does not necessarily mean there is a relation to your family.

I have a pretty rare surname. A Hollywood producer who has the same last name grew up about 50 miles from me. (He produced a cult B-movie that was remade with Nicolas Cage as the star.) My dad met the clan once, and so far as we can tell, there is no relation between his family and mine. So... there is that.
posted by Doohickie at 10:43 AM on March 21, 2013

What have you got to lose? Might as well ask. I got an email like this once; we weren't actually related in any way we could discover, but it was still interesting to learn about another tribe of Saxmans. We also turned out to be neighbors - bizarre coincidence, he lived two blocks away.

I'm not sure why you're worrying about etiquette. It seems like a perfectly reasonable question. "Hello there! I see that we have the same unusual surname - is it possible that our families have some connection?" If they feel awkward about that, they can just not answer, but I think most people would be curious.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:08 AM on March 21, 2013

I think it's hit me what part of my hang up is. Do we explain to him that we only thought it was plausible we were related because of his birthplace? From a US context, it feels really creepy that we know where he was born, but for him, it's something you put on the company website. Or do we not mention that and say "How funny you share a name with my brother. Think we might be related? This is what we know about our relatives"?
posted by hoyland at 11:41 AM on March 21, 2013

If he's put it on his companies website he doesn't care if people know where he's from. If you are worried what he'll think mention where you saw the info so he won't think you are crazily stalking him.

Write him, say pretty much what you said here, with some more detail about your families side of things to help him work out the connections. Honestly you're over thinking it a little, would you be chuffed to get a letter like that out of the blue, of course you would, so take a chance and send it.
posted by wwax at 12:08 PM on March 21, 2013

If it's such an unusual name, maybe don't mention that you know where he was born -- that might feel a little stalkeresque. Just say that you're curious and wanted to say hello from the other side of the world/country.

Nthing go for it. My family has the names Cakebread and Catchlove in it if you go back a few generations (ah, English villages!), so I have corresponded with several super-super-distant relatives just by Googling them.

Make sure you point out that you're just curious and that you're not trying to sell him a genealogy product or scam him by mentioning a will!
posted by vickyverky at 12:11 PM on March 21, 2013

My extended family is the only one in the US that shares our surname, thanks to an Ellis Island transliteration. My dad ran across another guy who had the same last name, from a couple states over. He wrote to 'im, basically saying something like, "Hey, just curious if you might be related to us, [Fellow Surname]. I'm XX from XX." Super short, sweet.

Turned out the guy is, like, a random third cousin who ended up keeping his mom's maiden name or something. He was genial, but the conversation was mostly, like, cocktail level stuff.

(There's a second-or-so cousin who shared my name. He was a ref at high school track matches in Indiana, and so for a long time, his name came up in google stuff even though I'd never met him — he was a good 50 years older than I am, but when someone digitized a lot of track records, his name is there as certifying the results.)
posted by klangklangston at 1:09 PM on March 21, 2013

A woman came to my Grandmother's house once looking for information about her grandfather. She was an only child of an only child and had no other living family member that she knew about, other than her children. Her grandfather had moved from Eastern Canada to the Western United states around 90 years before and, although she knew him when she was a child, she only knew his name and the name of the place he was born. She had done internet searches but that community only had about 200 families and her family name did not show up. She was on a trip about 4 hours away and decided to visit her grandfather's birthplace and find out his birth date and what happened to the rest of the family.

There were no business and only one church in the community. My Grandmother's house was next to the church so she knocked on the door to see when the church might be open and if they would have kept birth records. My Grandmother, who was 90 at the time and was 18 years younger than my grandfather, turned out to be her great aunt and had known her grandfather from his visits home.

Our family name had been changed by the government for taxation reasons in the late 1800's, from a Mac prefix to Mc. My grandfather had changed the name back when they changed the law, but her grandfather had already moved away and apparently didn't care to change it.

Until her death, our new cousin became part of the family, which I think we all enjoyed. She came to our family reunions and liked the fact that she went from zero cousins to hundreds overnight, and we had pictures of her grandfather (all her pictures had been destroyed in a fire.)

Moral of the story is give it a shot. Even common first names are not always common with uncommon surnames. If you contact him, just say you are looking to fill in a gap in your family tree and find out more about your grandfather.
posted by Yorrick at 1:55 PM on March 21, 2013

I have an unusual last name, and I was pretty high-profile on Yahoo back in the dizzay, and the top hit on Google for that name for quite a while, so I have gotten many emails from people who share the same or similar names. (One branch in America changed to a less Germanic spelling during WWI.)

I responded enthusiastically to the first few, and learned some interesting stuff about the deep history of my ancestors. I got less excited around the fifth or sixth person with my last name who emailed me out of the blue, because I began to feel a lot less snowflakey. :)

But this is a common thing to do, for sure. I agree, don't mention that you stalked him to his birthplace, but do mention where your Dad's relatives are from, and ask if he knows anything about the ethnic mystery.
posted by BrashTech at 3:34 PM on March 21, 2013

I also research my family's genealogy and I've reached out to a few people to whom I'm reasonably sure I'm related. It doesn't hurt to write. Just don't get your hopes up about a response -- some respond, some don't. Those who respond have varying levels of interest in connecting with long-lost/distant relations.
posted by asciident at 8:52 PM on March 21, 2013

This is what we know about our relatives
I'd save that for the second email.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:09 AM on March 23, 2013

I'd save that for the second email.

Can you elaborate as to why?

I'm not kidding when I say I know almost nothing about these people. I was thinking I'd summarise in like three to five bullet points and either something would ring a bell or not. If someone sent me such a letter and didn't tell me what they knew about their family, I'd never reply. I wouldn't want a lot, but a paragraph or so with which to judge if it were remotely likely we were related.
posted by hoyland at 10:47 AM on March 23, 2013

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