08 January 2008

Reactions: "I'm a genealogist"

How do people react when you say you're a genealogist?

Do they ask how many babies you've delivered - thinking you said gynecologist; what caves or oil fields you've discovered - confusing you with a geologist; or simply think you are strange for happily shlepping through cemeteries looking for dead people (which, you must admit, is a good place to find them)?

This posting is also a challenge to my gen-blogging colleagues to write an entry about the strangest, funniest or most confusing reactions to what you do. Readers are invited to share their experiences through comments below.

I was once introduced to a room full of women, members of a large Jewish organization's branch in Israel, as the "gynecology columnist for the Jerusalem Post." After the laughter quieted down, I mentioned that - if you think about it - the two fields are related. Without gynecology, there wouldn't be genealogy.

Our daughter lived in Switzerland for a few years. On one of our visits, her friend's family offered their ski resort apartment. As they were leaving, they said "take a look at the books, if you get a chance," indicating a shelf of leather-bound books. We were busy trekking through the picturesque town; husband and daughter were skiing every day and I was enjoying the scenery. On our last day, I looked at the books and realized they held her friend's family history dating from the 15th century, compiled by his father!

This particular challenge came from reading a great column by genealogist James M. Beidler in the Lebanon (PA) Daily News:

When meeting people and the subject of “what do you do for a living” comes up, there’s an interesting mix of reactions.

The most popular response is a polite, “Oh, that must be very interesting,” oftentimes followed by some genealogy frame of reference: “My aunt (or uncle or cousin or fill-in-the-blank relative) has done a lot of work on that and traced us back to … .”

A lot of people then ask if I can really make a living doing genealogy writing, lecturing and researching, to which I explain to them that I do OK, but that it certainly helps that I also am a tax preparer for four months a year.

Some people respond by focusing on the relatively new DNA aspects of genealogy, which at least shows me that these folks keep up with the news.

Beidler describes the genealogy/geology confusion and some surprises along the way:

But as we were saying goodbye, I mentioned where I lived and she said, “Oh, you’re going to think this is really bizarre, but I’ve tromped on cemeteries around there — I’m a genealogist.”

She says the look on my face was one of bewilderment and connection as I explained that I didn’t think tromping on cemeteries was at all strange.

Beidler also mentions the rewards of talking about genealogy to people who had never done any family history research until they met him.

Read more here.

I'm looking forward to seeing my colleagues' responses to the challenge. All readers are also invited to comment as well on the reactions of family and friends to what can be a somewhat obsessive pursuit.

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