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When I meet people for the first time I am inevitably asked what it is that I do.
When I meet people for the first time I am inevitably asked what it is that I do. What runs through my head is the long list of unpaid, non-volunteer hours I put in as a Domestic Engineer, Taxis Driver, Councilor, Nutritionist, Cook, Personal Shopper, Pet Caregiver, Medical Advisor, etc. Instead I like to use the “icebreaker” that I work with the dead. Now that stops them in their tracks and revs up an individual’s attention. At times I believe I can actually see the wheels spinning in their heads wondering if I am a mortician, grave digger, medium or just plain nuts. I proceed to tell them that I am a professional genealogist and except for some uniformed individuals who think I deliver babies or study rocks, the major of people know that what I do is research family histories. This seems to intrigue them more as they then explain how they have their family histories completed by some older relative or that they are in the process of tracking down their ancestors or some even wishing they could but don’t know how. Oh sure there are always the few who could careless about their family history and they may have good reasons for this, but for the most part people are willing and eager to talk about their family’s past.

I can learn so much about a person once they start talking about their past and it always surprises my husband how I can get a group of people I only just met, talking amongst themselves about themselves in such a short amount of time, with me coming away with more details on a person then he has learnt knowing them longer then I have. Mentioning that I am a professional genealogist is the trick of course. Of course I listen intently and carefully to what they are telling me as I believe everyone has their own important story to tell. To make them feel more comfortable I also share with them some of my family history stories especially if they relate to what they have been telling me. Thus, a conversation has begun with respect and mutual sharing. I also make sure to ask a few questions to encourage them into sharing more. I learnt this as a child when my grandfather use to tell us stories and my brother and I would ask grandpa to tell us the story about such and such. Even if we had made the topic up and never heard tale of it before, grandpa would always oblige and some new story would unfold for our eager ears. I love hearing everyone’s story and I believe people just want to be heard and acknowledged.

I am always thrilled to see a spark light up inside someone when they discover the joys and pleasures of hunting for their ancestors. Heck I find it remarkable the stories from my family history wondering how I was every born with ancestors coming from different parts of the world. Such conversation is so satisfying and yet reminds me of all the others who I still need to reach while their ancestors wait silently and patiently in books, manuscripts, government documents, tombstones, microfilm, digital formats, old family bibles and letters, on the Internet and within the hearts and minds of our living elders. Are you looking for an icebreaker when you meet new people? Tell them your passion is working with the dead and then see what unfolds. You never know, you might be talking with a long lost cousin that was never really a stranger at all.

Happy Hunting!!


Tammy Tipler-Priolo BASc, PLCGS
The Ancestor Investigator is also the Ancestor Whisperer!