Why do people take dna tests for amusement? Why?!
January 12, 2020 11:58 AM   Subscribe

I have friends who have done or are considering taking one of those DNA tests. I think these services are generally a stupid idea and I just cannot relate at all as to why my friends want to waste money on them. How can I be less condescending and more supportive when they talk about it and eventually want to talk to me about the results? Help me understand why people take these tests, specifically when they say it’s because they want to find out more about their distant ethnic heritage.

They are not taking these to connect with lost or unknown family, which I would totally understand. I just don’t see the point and I do not understand what satisfaction they could be getting from being told they might be 12% Scandinavian. In the case of my Asian friends, they are most likely to be told they are 100% whatever Asian they are. In either case, and then what? What do people do with this information?

Maybe there something wrong with me? I feel zero connection to my ancestors. I’m the type of person who would feel zero sense of connection to visit an ancestral home or site or cemetery. I would have the same reaction if it were any historical home, site or cemetery - satisfying a mild intellectual curiosity and general interest for ancient artefacts and civilisations. I actually really like touring these kinds of things and imagining how people used to live. I just wouldn’t really care much that those people may have been related to me.

But lots of people take these tests so there must be something I’m missing here. Is there a different way I can look at this and talk to friends about it in a way that’s, well, friendly, even if it’s not necessarily enthusiastic?
posted by like_neon to Human Relations (43 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The same reason people take online personality tests and IQ tests and read horoscopes. It can be fun to see all the subtle nuances of yourself summarized in a discrete set of numbers.

That, and other people are doing it.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:08 PM on January 12, 2020 [24 favorites]

To paraphrase Amy Poehler, 'good for them, not for me.'
posted by nerdfish at 12:09 PM on January 12, 2020 [10 favorites]

My mother did the test because she was raised within a strict immigrant identity (country of origin + religion) and always felt oppressed by that identity. She feels as though she could maybe cast off that part of her identity by finding out what was "further back" and identifying with that.
posted by xo at 12:10 PM on January 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think there's anything *wrong* with you for not being interested in this stuff, but a lot of people are interested in genealogy and heritage and stuff to varying degrees.

As for why a DNA test specifically, it's a near-zero-effort way to get heritage/genealogy info, regardless of whether your ancestors kept any kind of genealogical information themselves, so it's very accessible. For people whose ancestors were enslaved, it might be the only way to get information about ancestors who lived more than 200-ish years ago. There are definitely problematic aspects to turning your genetic material over to a private company, but most of us allow businesses to be way more up in our business than is necessary or wise, regardless.

Basically, it's something they're interested in that you're not. It's kind of like asking, "Why do my friends listen to jazz LPs?" or "Why do my friends go to church?" No one has to be wrong here.
posted by mskyle at 12:12 PM on January 12, 2020 [51 favorites]

Best answer: Can you see this as being like any other thing you have no interest in? Lots of people are into video games, football, fashion, and superhero movies. None of these things are interesting to me and some of them feel like a huge waste of money, but I don’t have any trouble not being condescending about it. Are you interested in things your friends don’t care about? Are they condescending to you about your interests? Is there a reason you feel superior about your lack of interest here?

I did a DNA test because I am interested in my ancestry and wanted to see how it matched up with family lore. For me, it was fun. I’d be irritated if a friend were condescending about it, as I expect the same courtesy I give when people start talking about their fantasy football leagues or whoever the current popular singer is.
posted by FencingGal at 12:15 PM on January 12, 2020 [33 favorites]

Best answer: I think for a lot of white Americans (if you're talking about Americans) that they are curious how the "melting pot" of American colonialism may have obscured their ancestry. I also think that a lot of people hope there are fascinating secrets that might be hiding in their DNA. Sadly, there are many among us and it's a common logical fallacy that we don't readily identify with experiences that are different from our own. We just don't get that other people have different...often vastly different lives and experiences from our own and anything beyond our own noses is almost unknowable. So, finding out that somewhere in your vast lineage, was a very different sort of person from a part of the world that you don't identify with at all can be pretty perspective shifting.

Also, there's hordes of people who are very, very interested in heritage. This can be used to create a strong in-group dynamic that is comforting to them but for some of us looks terrifying...especially if we are on the outs with this group. I have family members who are very invested in genealogy and lineage and legacy and...some of it seems quite damaging. Or just snobby or like they are borrowing a mantel of legitimacy from their historical forebears and...that's just bullshit, really.

Many Americans also have secret whispers of Native American ancestry. My mom "had a great, great, Native grandfather" except maybe not. It feels like her Native American "spice" seems to dilute her lineage of bog standard American racism (it doesn't). She was livid to find not Native ancestry listed in her results but Chinese. It seemed to wound her in a way that is...undeniably racist. She was comforted when I found out that there are some fascinating genealogical studies linking or attempting to understand the link between Indigenous Americans and East Asian people. That righted the story in her mind. She's also very proud of her ancestor Hannah Dustin who was lauded as a defensive scalper of Indians. There's some contemporary writing, thankfully, challenging this story because she's only a hero if you find scalping a just punishment for what the Native peoples were doing at that time and the skirmishes that were happening.

So, there's lots to unpack, really, but this – How can I be less condescending and more supportive when they talk about it and eventually want to talk to me about the results? – is a tough order to answer. Because listening to some of these ramblings is often no better than listening to someone describe at length their weird dream from last night.

The only thing I'd offer is to turn the conversation to what sort of perspective were they looking to gain by doing the test. How does it inform how they think about who they are today or their place in the world? Do they feel different knowing the results or do they feel the same? Would they recommend other people take the tests and if so, why? Like, get away from the actual results because "OMG! I have both Russian and African heritage!" is pretty boring to anyone that isn't them. If they do find out they have an ethnicity indicated in their background that is vastly different to the one that they present as, ask if that makes them feel differently about that ethnicity. Then you can have a fascinating discussion about their latent racism and that makes everyone at the party feel very relaxed and comfortable!
posted by amanda at 12:22 PM on January 12, 2020 [14 favorites]

I come from an umbrella-ethnic group, in that we have a unifying name, but are a mix of a ethnicities that were blended together over a 450 year period of a semi-nomadic existence. I took a dna test in order to understand better the history and diaspora. It was illuminating, and revealed things about my ancestry that are not in the official story of my people.
posted by nanook at 12:25 PM on January 12, 2020 [11 favorites]

A friend recently told me she did it because she has no connection with one side of her family and she wanted to know something about heritage and about various genetic risks. That was the closest to understanding I’ve been able to get (like you it’s hard for me to imagine doing it myself).
posted by eirias at 12:26 PM on January 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

But lots of people take these tests so there must be something I’m missing here. Is there a different way I can look at this and talk to friends about it in a way that’s, well, friendly, even if it’s not necessarily enthusiastic?

The Sawbones podcast did an episode on DNA testing and they very much come down on the "don't do it" side of it, but the discussion isn't "Pffft. This is stupid." They raise some pretty substantive objections to what the information really means, and with how the companies in question handle people's personal information.

You might find some diplomatic talking points in it that will help you explain in a non-judgemental way why it's not for you.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:34 PM on January 12, 2020 [8 favorites]

You might find some diplomatic talking points in it that will help you explain in a non-judgemental way why it's not for you.

Sure. If someone is pressuring you to do it, maybe. But, they've already done it so raising some legitimate points about why they should maybe not have done it is more likely to make them feel like a rube or a dummy and that's no way to maintain a friendship.
posted by amanda at 12:40 PM on January 12, 2020 [15 favorites]

I think these services are generally a stupid idea and I just cannot relate at all as to why my friends want to waste money on them. How can I be less condescending...?

Well you could start right there in how you frame the question.

Maybe there something wrong with me? I feel zero connection to my ancestors. I’m the type of person who would feel zero sense of connection to visit an ancestral home or site or cemetery.

There is nothing wrong with you in that regard. It is fine to feel zero connection to your ancestors and zero sense of connection to ancestral sites. But the thing is, lots of people do, and that is not "stupid." To be less condescending about their interest, stop being judgmental. Change the subject, if you have to, or listen and ask questions to understand their particular interest (as opposed to all the general reasons being listed here).
posted by beagle at 12:41 PM on January 12, 2020 [18 favorites]

Is the problem just confined to the DNA tests? If someone had more established genealogical evidence of their ancestry and connection to particular places and cultures, would you be able to converse pleasantly with them?

If so, the thing to do might be to doublethink yourself into taking the results of the DNA tests more seriously than you apparently do, just for the sake of the conversation. (And, to be clear, there's good reason to not take them very seriously, plus identity is constructed, etc.) But if on the other hand you can't have an enthusiastic discussion about someone's heritage even when there's 100% certainty involved, that may be a more difficult issue.
posted by XMLicious at 12:42 PM on January 12, 2020

Best answer: It reminds me of dreams. Am I ever interested in hearing about someone else’s dreams? Not really. Do I find my own—and what they might suggest about me—interesting? Very much so. In many ways, we are all mysteries to ourselves. We will never really know why we have some particular personality quirk (nature, nurture, random chance?)—this is one concrete way for people to conceptualize who they are.
posted by sallybrown at 12:47 PM on January 12, 2020 [14 favorites]

People "enjoy" tarot readings and palm readings even if they don't believe in them. It's attention. Which I see as a fundamental human need, not a vice, but it's unfortunate that there aren't other ways to feel noticed and special.
posted by amtho at 12:48 PM on January 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

I do feel a connection to my ancestors and I think that's really normal. I don't think there's anything wrong with you if you don't, but I think it's one of those things that a lot of people - maybe most people - just automatically feel. I haven't taken a DNA test, but that's mainly because I have enough genealogical information that I pretty much already know what the test would show.

I realize that what I know about my ancestors doesn't really tell me anything important about who I am. I think it's interesting to imagine how people lived in the past whether or not they were related to me. But I would feel an extra bit of interest or connection if I visited a place where I knew my ancestors had lived. I feel an extra bit of interest when I find information about an ancestor of mine and some pride if they appear to have been admirable in some way - a freethinker or an abolitionist or an important member of the community. I know it doesn't really make sense. The influence of any one ancestor on my genetic makeup is tiny. Their good or bad qualities shouldn't reflect on me in any way.

I care about having descendants, too. I hope I will, and the future of the earth feels a lot more important to me if I imagine my descendants living there. I realize that doesn't make much sense either. People are all equally valuable and interesting. There's no reason for me to be more interested in my great-great-great grandmother or great-great-great granddaughter than I am in any other random person on Earth. But I just am more interested anyway, without having chosen to feel that way. I find it interesting to know what part of the world my ancestors came from. Why? I couldn't tell you, any more than I could tell you why I like blue and hate purple or like cilantro and hate licorice.

I think the way to look at it is the way you look at people who are more or less introverted or adventurous or fond of chocolate than you are. They feel differently than you do and their feelings are normal and pretty harmless, so there's no need to make a big deal about it in your mind.
posted by Redstart at 12:49 PM on January 12, 2020 [6 favorites]

“because she has no connection with one side of her family“

I’m not saying this is everyone, but I’ve known people who did it because they’re lacking in present-day connection and looking to connect withsomething. Not dissimilar to why I studied history or some people read fiction.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:50 PM on January 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A lot of people I know who take DNA tests are looking for belonging, to something. I would actually think those who say "oh I'm just doing it for fun" don't actually feel comfortable being vulnerable about their real reasons for why they want to do it. I think the easiest thing to do is to turn inwards and figure out why you are being so judgmental about this, and why any of it would have to do with you. Do you feel a sense of shame over not caring about this as much? Or does it just seem silly to turn over your data to a private company in a surveillance state like this? But either way, people make their own decisions to find some inner peace, and I have a bestie who did that and I respect his decision, although I would personally never give out my information like that. But to him, the benefits of discovery outweighed the risks, and I respect that.
posted by yueliang at 12:54 PM on January 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

For myself, I was a bastard adopted by my maternal grandparents. I never learned anything about my natural father. Now I'm an old man and here is this reasonably-priced technology, so what the heck? Not that I learned anything deep about myself...
posted by tmdonahue at 12:57 PM on January 12, 2020 [11 favorites]

> In either case, and then what? What do people do with this information?

Ask your friends! But in a nice way, which will be all about the tone you use.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:02 PM on January 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

I participated in a study that included free access to 23andme. I don't care about my ancestors either or identify with "heritage," so I just ignore all that, but the medical reports are interesting and have spared me from wondering about certain things that I probably wouldn't have been able to justify having my health insurance pay for (wanting to test for a certain gene, for example, without a clear family history). It also tries to calculate things like one's lifetime risk of diabetes, which I'm sure isn't 100% accurate but probably does give some idea of relative risk. I mean, mine is 50%, so clearly I shouldn't mess around, right? In any case, though, as much as I think the medical stuff is cool, I can certainly imagine someone else who doesn't care about that at all, but is actually really into the ancestry stuff. Why not? Even I poked through it, just to see. I wouldn't have paid money for it for myself, but I'd consider it as a gift for someone. I certainly know people who'd be pleased to "officially" be 100% something, or even "I'm the most Irish of my siblings" or what have you. They also routinely go to cultural fests and actually study the informational booths, which I find mind-numbingly boring, but hey, I like talking about made-up aliens having fantastic space adventures and some folks find that equally unappealing.
posted by teremala at 1:20 PM on January 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

People have a deeply fundamental need to answer the question "where did I come from?" Every single culture has origin stories. Sure there are people, l suspect people like you, who are just not that curious and are satisfied simply by looking at your parents and having that be the answer. Others of us want to know more. This can be an especially compelling desire for people who have a fracture in their family: they are adoptees or are the children of adoptees, they have a dead parent, they have an unknown parent, they have a parent they suspect isn't a parent, the family has been geographically displaced, or their family history is treated with silence or is simply unknown.

Basically, other people have different life experiences to you and there's no call for you to be judgmental about it.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:34 PM on January 12, 2020 [10 favorites]

I looked up where you were and was unsurprised to see you're not American (who are super-obsessed with their ancestry and "heritage" and whatnot). I'm much like you, I have no interest in my ancestors, but that's because
1. I have a pretty good idea where they're from & what they were like, cuz they were all from around here (here being Luxembourg in my case). So, boooooring, basically.
2. I'm not too keen on my immediate family, so why should I care about those who came before.
Perhaps you have similar circumstances? Perhaps you can understand that this is not true for everyone? That having more nebulous ancestry makes you more curious about where you are from, what experiences your ancestors may have had, what cultures "run in your blood", if you will?

Rather than questioning why many others do as they do, try to dig at why you do not and you may come to an answer that way.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 1:51 PM on January 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: How can I be less condescending and more supportive when they talk about it and eventually want to talk to me about the results?

I also have no interest at all in a DNA test. I'm not even interested in my biological father; my disinterest is so complete that although my mother once told me his name, I've completely forgotten it.

I bring this up because being condescending isn't a natural consequence of being disinterested. The way that you wrote this question and the fact that you had to ask it at all tells me that your problem isn't disinterest, it's that you have negative attitudes about these tests and are judging the people who take them.

Maybe one way to be less condescending is to interrogate where that judgment is coming from. Are you feeling defensive because it seems like everyone is into this thing you're not? It's okay to not be into it. Are you feeling like people are being irrational? It's okay to be irrational. Are you worried about the political implications of caring deeply about genetic heritage? Maybe think about how there are different ways to care about that. And so on.

In any case, you behave like you do with any friend who has a hobby or interest you're not into. You listen, you ask a few questions, and then you move on. You don't have to be interested in the hobby itself; you just have to be interested in your friend. Being interested in your friend will help you cultivate an empathy that will also help dispel some of the judginess.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:07 PM on January 12, 2020 [30 favorites]

I had a doctor want me to order it and give him the results. I got as far as ordering the test and getting it on my desk before I decided I didn't want the test company OR my doctor to have my DNA information. I gave the test away.
posted by summerstorm at 2:15 PM on January 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

I don't put much into heritage either. My family line ends with me so it doesn't really matter. But I think history is pretty interesting. How people move and travel over time and stories change and mix.

For me, it WAS mildly interesting - for like $60 - to find out my genetic heritage is TOTALLY different from what I was told/assumed/guessed. There are physical traits that can be associated with places that my genetics match with, that I didn't even know about.

I agree, this is like anything else. You can just not be into it, and that's fine. But it sounds like you think it's stupid or useless. And that's making you look down on people who have done it and want to talk about it. You can just say "Hey, I'm glad you find that useful." and change the subject.

I'm also white, and I don't know the background of all your friends but you mention Asian friends - for a lot of non-white people their history has literally been destroyed. Their families have been separated. Their histories have been erased. And they may find solace and connection with their culture from finding out their background. Or it seems there's likely a strong cultural background there that is pushing them to find out this information and identify with it that you just don't share.
posted by Crystalinne at 2:16 PM on January 12, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Maybe there something wrong with me? I feel zero connection to my ancestors.

I don't think there is anything wrong with you, But it may be that not caring at all about your ancestors or family history is slightly outside of a normative range. Which is to say it's normal, but maybe not shared by as many people as wanting to know more about your heritage.

I got one of these tests done a long time ago, a gift from a friend, before the company that did them basically changed their privacy policy to be crappy and then I told them to destroy my data and who knows, maybe they did. But honestly my curiosity was a few things

1. everyone in my family are a bunch of liars and I was curious about a story about where "my people" came from that wasn't reliant on someone's fancy idea of where we came from (my family is Jewish and there are a few distinct Jewish groups and I was curious which one my genes say we were a part of)
2. I know it's not genetic testing like looking for diseases but I was curious about whether people with DNA "like mine" had certain diseases. I might have decided to get more genetic testing if it had looked like they did
3. I don't have kids (and neither does my only sibling) so I didn't feel it would be poisoning someone's downstream well

Nowadays there's some neat "roll your own" databases you can upload your genome to, if that's your thing, and maybe learn some stuff. So I guess my feeling is "Eh it's my stuff, why do YOU care what I do with it?" like, put another way, I went out to lunch with my boyfriend and he got fish soup, I don't like fish soup. But he does. I don't ask "WHY????" because the basic answer is "Because people are different." and beyond that a lot of it is taste, preferences, values and ethics. So I guess for you I'd look more into "OK why do you have friends? What do you get from that? Given that you have friends who are into these things and given that you like having friends, how can you find a way to talk about these things that doesn't make your sound super judgmental and like you think your friends are a little stupid?"

Because wow, I have that friend, the one who thinks anything you do that he can't understand is basically dumb. And while we still do some things together, I don't talk to him about a lot of things that matter to me because I don't need to spend time with someone who not only thinks some of the things I do are dumb but doesn't care about my feelings enough to basically try to make me not know that.
posted by jessamyn at 2:35 PM on January 12, 2020 [30 favorites]

Best answer: mild intellectual curiosity

They probably feel the same thing. There you go.

Framing other people's curiosity as irrational and your own as normal is...a thing you can do, but usually when I start being a big ol' judgemonster like that it's because I'm unhappy with myself and taking it out on other people by being harsh about the things I see in myself. YMMV
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 3:02 PM on January 12, 2020 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, I mean, what Jessamyn said.

These tests cost about $100, about the same price as a couple of videogames or a ticket to a Broadway show. Would you feel just as judgmental about a friend buying either of those? Because one could make an argument that these are both similarly frivolous and incomprehensible.

People have different interests and criteria for what engages them, being a good friend means moving past the differences and cultivating the things that made you friends in the first place.
posted by jeremias at 4:17 PM on January 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

A parent took it because they felt like they never fit in with their family of origin. Turns out they were adopted and their hunch was correct. My sister's ordered the 23 and Me test because it's cheaper and far less hassle than having her DNA tested in a lab to find a specific blood clotting disorder that 23 and Me tests for. Neither said any of this to people they're not close to, just that they were curious about their ancestry.

An elderly relative recently signed up for 23 and Me because she genuinely thought it would be a fun lark, like taking a personality test. (She found out something that upset her greatly. Taking these tests can be like opening Pandora's Box. )
posted by Feminazgul at 4:24 PM on January 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

For me, I was just too lazy to deal with the distant relative who keeps track of all of this lineage stuff. Part of my family has been in the US from so far back that there's a city with my LastName. Plus that historian has obnoxious licensing agreements on the data they've collected. Once upon a time after I moved to the other side of the country some random girl came up and asked me if I was Indian. I thought American Indian and well it's not out of the question given how far back and where one side of my family was from. Then several years later I saw a documentary on India and BAM! there was a man who was the spitting image of my father... it was weird. And the general "we're basically English" also made that bit of India Indian also a plausible possiblility. Who knows? A big bit of just scientist geekery, I've gone to a conference where some scientist has sequenced his entire gut biome multiple times trying to track down medical issues... He also had a full body MRI hooked into a VR rig where you could fly through his body. That was really cool. So, when things like 23andMe had this thing that I knew basically how and what they were doing (compared to actually sequencing everything).... Sounds like fun.

Mostly English, a touch of Scandinavian and French. Actually not much surprise at all. The best thing IMHO is that I have more Neanderthal DNA than 98% of the tested population. Which might explain quite a bit. :)

I should ask my aunt next time I'm back on that side of the country, she goes to that big LastName shindig. Meh.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:27 PM on January 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

People take them for all kinds of reasons, ranging from the kind of self-indulgent "tell me about myself" curiosity that drives folks to read horoscopes; to wondering if their families are telling the truth about their history; to wondering about their health; to wanting to know more about their families' experience in the world; to wanting to feel like they are part of a tribe.

The need to situate the self within the context of the greater world is an eternal one; it's at the core of lots of human endeavor. People want a story to tell about themselves. I've seen some people get results back that are vaguer than they were hoping, and they're disappointed, because that vagueness doesn't come with a story.

Now of course those tests illuminate a lot less than folks tend to think, in terms of "you're 17% Scottish" etc. One of the scientists at ancestry.com explained it to me the other day; I'm not going to try to recreate the explanation for fear of getting it wrong, but it's worth looking up if you're interested in those tests.

I do know some people who share your disdain for the whole enterprise, but it's based on the iffy science, not on contempt for people wanting to know about where their family comes from.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:26 PM on January 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I took one because I wanted to see if maybe I had any ancestry other than the "boring" (to me) European Ashkenazi Jewish stuff that I knew about. (Answer: nope, apparently no one on either side of on my family was very adventurous, at least in recent enough history for it to be measurable with these tools.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:43 PM on January 12, 2020

My aunt paid for it and I admit I wouldn't have gone through with filling it out except enough relatives of mine already have done it, so if we have any serial killers in the gene pool, they are outed now. It seemed kinda "too late" on that score, and I've always been curious, so.

I didn't get any mindblowing results or secret siblings (so far), mostly I was just all "huh, I'm French?" "now, wait, it says I'm NOT French?" Mostly it indicates I'm more English-y/Scottish-y than I thought. I got told I was mostly German, quarter Italian and a wee bit Scots-Irish growing up, and now I'm about 20% German and so far these tests don't think I'm Italian at all. HUH? (Then why do I have such a fat head?) So it's a weird mystery.

Mostly I was amused to see that I'm distantly related to someone with the same name as my mother's boyfriend--he has a generic name so I assume it's a different guy--and likewise, I'm distantly related to a famous actor with a generic enough name that I'm sure I'm not actually related to that one either. I think it's also very odd that I'm only distantly related to ONE person with my last name in all 600+ distant cousins the thing dug up.

So yeah, I was curious and the results have been weird. That is all. If you're not into it, then fine, don't worry about it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:44 PM on January 12, 2020

I thinkamanda's comment gets at some of my uneasiness about dna tests. Sometimes being a heritage hobbyist is reinforcing or even exacerbating existing super problematic understandings of race, e.g. Cherokee ancestry.

I try to stay on the confusion side (why?) rather than ending up in condescension (this is stupid). I was very baffled when I was at a party of mostly activist/political types and nearly all of them had done a dna test.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:58 PM on January 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

I don't know about your friends, but for some of mine it was about wanting an ethnic identity. White is not seen as an ethnicity (technical term: unmarked), and anyway there are social problems nowadays with identifying too strongly as "white." The DNA test provided a quick and easy way to establish an ethnic identity.

I am, by the way, totally on your side. The science is oversold at best, specious at worst; the data security and privacy is non-existent; and the resulting discussions often set me on edge. Like, nobody's actively come out and said something terrible to me, but every time they start talking I just find myself dreading the moment I'm going to find out something I didn't want to know about my friends' world views. Hugs.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 6:04 PM on January 12, 2020

If you grow up in a family with a lot of secrets you constantly have this sense that there is something hidden but you don't know what. I'm a person who loves mystery stories so the idea that there is a laboratory somewhere that could send me a report explaining my family's dysfunction was extremely appealing. I mean, the idea that the family secrets were somehow encoded in my saliva and could be decoded is honestly kind of magical.

There is a fantastic podcast called Family Secrets by Dani Shapiro, who also wrote a book about discovering via a DNA test that her biological father was not the person she thought. She interviews people about secrets they've uncovered and a lot of the time it's via a DNA test. A lot of the participants talk about this weird sense of knowing but also not knowing the secret. Like they'd sort of reached this agreement with themselves to not know, even though on some level they did. I think people are drawn to these tests for reasons they might not even be aware of. Their subconscious is telling them they are ready to know the thing they haven't wanted to know, while their conscious mind is like "let's check our risk for early onset alzheimers!"

Also, I think there's a desire to fact check some of your family's stories. I agree that this is an extremely American thing to do. Is it possible that you've got some heritage that was hidden from you? Are the rumors about this generation having 1/32nd Cherokee ancestry true? Is there an entire family that was hidden from you (like grandpa was having a secret life or something)? America is a big place with a lot of mobility. An affair or an unplanned pregnancy or an adoption could be hidden away pretty easily. It is entirely possible that our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have secrets locked away that you could uncover with a DNA test.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:55 PM on January 12, 2020 [8 favorites]

I did it because I wanted a relatively easy way to see if I was a carrier for the Alzheimer's APOE gene, and I wanted to see if I could learn more about my grandfather's mother's side of the family, as she died when she was in her 30s and none of us knew much about her. It was 100% worth it. I'm actually somewhat baffled by your condescension to this. And, honestly, a lot of the people I know who squawk loudly about privacy concerns with DNA companies don't seem nearly as concerned about the fact Google/Alexa/Siri are tracking their/our every move. Meh.
posted by Anonymouse1618 at 7:10 PM on January 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

Help me understand why people take these tests, specifically when they say it’s because they want to find out more about their distant ethnic heritage.

I did it because I was interested in the difference between the vast documentation of the one side of my family, careful genealogical records going back to the 1700's versus the rather sparse documentation of the Holocaust survivors on the other side. There could have been so much! I could have Russian ancestry! I don't know why I held onto that, There was very little chance that I am actually of secretly royal blood.

Doing a cheek swab and connecting it with my Ancestry.com account helped put me in contact with distant cousins on both sides. The sparse documentation grew a little bit. This tie with my ancestors was important to me because... well, because of the Holocaust. I have no better explanation than that. I want it to be shown that my family members from generations back still have ties to our present day, I guess? (Ancestry has photos of grave sites, sometimes. For some of my relatives, the photo was of a Holocaust memorial. I had to stop for a while after that, it hit too hard.)

Also, it affirmed that the family records were accurate: no surprise, whatsoever, just what was known. I'm 47% WASP, 53% European Jew. The 3% difference delighted me and was the only surprise of the result. I'm not any kind of hidden royalty at all, no American Indian ancestry to prove whatever that was supposed to prove. I might have been deliberately trying to stop a close (direct lineage) relative from claiming such things any more.
posted by RainyJay at 9:43 PM on January 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for such thoughtful answers, many of which shared pretty personal feelings and experiences, I really appreciate that. The different perspectives was exactly what I was looking for. I realise I had a rather narrow view of the motivation behind taking these tests so seeing the variety of stories was really interesting and eye opening.

It also hadn't actually occurred to me to look at it like a hobby. Mainly because none of my friends are into genealogical topics as a hobby, at least not in an obvious way. But the metaphor to hobbies, astrology, tarot readings, fantasy football etc, helps (omg fantasy football in particular, WHY?? moving on...). And it gives me a clear way to navigate these conversations in the future. I think if I try and nudge the conversation towards their thoughts on "identity", "belonging", human history and our place in it, that would not only help me approach these conversations in a more positive manner but also understand my friends better and get closer to them, which is always nice.

I know I'm being judgemental and that's bad and I feel bad for it. That's why I came here. I don't want to be mean to my friends. They're my friends and I usually have no problem supporting most of what they do with their lives. So this bothered me which is why I sought the insights of this community. Not sure being told to "just stop" being condescending was that helpful, but message received loud and clear.

That said, the suggestions to look inwards to reflect on why I was being judgemental (rather than just disinterested) resonated with me. I won't go into details as that was not what this post was about, but there are a couple of things in my life that are so obviously sensitive areas around DNA testing that I actually have to laugh at myself for not seeing it before. I have some self reflection to do to find peace within myself, and hopefully that will help temper my judgey reaction to others.
posted by like_neon at 1:25 AM on January 13, 2020 [16 favorites]

They say if you have done nothing wrong, why do you worry...
I suspect I'm being superparanoid, but I'd be concerned about a few things.

1) what are they doing with your DNA data? (are they selling it on, how securely is it stored. Who OWNS it? Do you own Copyright? Is this sort of information CLEARLY set out, or written in fineprint?)
2) Is everyone in your family OK with it? (You may be sharing quite a lot of/all their information too. Might your information get used to infer about others in your family?)
3) What if they find out something shocking (e.g. you're not related to your parents/siblings / you have a hightened chance of developing some illness)?
4) Will insurance companies/future jobs/work be able to access it without your knowlege/permission (will you quietly be dropped from some future health insurance because you didn't declare something you didn't realise?).
posted by Dub at 2:21 AM on January 13, 2020

I have, I think, a weird answer to this. I felt a moral obligation to be tested.

After I got my DNA kit done, I volunteered to make my data available to the police via a DNA database. I also participated in a bunch of optional medical questionnaires. I feel like the larger the data pool for either of these applications, the more likely they are to bear fruit. I'm more keen on, say, a treatment for chronic illnesses than identifying the next Golden State Killer, but I'm happy to help with either.
posted by Zudz at 7:23 AM on January 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Hey, we've all been there, and asking the question means you're working on it, which is about all we can do with these funny little monsters we call brains! Good luck with it.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:08 AM on January 13, 2020

Also, if it helps, the people who are judgmentally saying to "just stop" being judgmental are doing the same thing you were doing! You honestly can't help but laugh at how silly we can all be sometimes.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:10 AM on January 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

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