Regular Doses of Common Sense™

Does Your Ancestry Really Change Your Present?

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Does Your Ancestry Really Change Your Present?

Commercials for companies promising to trace your ancestry are everywhere you look…but are they sending the wrong message?

Who are you? How would you describe your personality?

I think, if we actually take the time to think about that question, we can come up with a pretty reasonable answer.

But commercials for various companies that can help you trace your ancestry might have you believe that you can’t possibly answer such a question until you have your entire family tree in front of you.

I can think of an important reason to know your ancestry: your ancestors’ medical histories. Some diseases and conditions are hereditary, after all, and can influence your health.

But the idea that we have to know our ancestors — or even where they’re from — just to know who we are now is patently absurd.

One of the worst examples of this kind of messaging features a man who believed his family was of German ancestry.

Here’s the spot:

The man says he regularly donned a costume of German lederhosen and danced at gatherings of “fellow” Germans. But when he paid to have his ancestry tested, he said he was surprised to learn there was no German heritage in his family tree; he was Scottish instead.

“So I traded in the lederhosen for a kilt,” he says at the end of the commercial.

Is he a different person because he learned he was of Scottish origin instead of German? No. He’s only acting as though he is.

What bugs me about the spot is the premise that suddenly learning something about your heritage somehow changes — or more specifically, requires you to change — who you are.

Granted, we don’t know the whole story here because it’s only a :30 commercial, but we seem to get a sense that this guy enjoyed his time living under the presumption that he was of German descent. If he didn’t, I suspect he would never have purchased the lederhosen to begin with.

Yet after learning he is actually of Scottish descent, from what he says, he didn’t just go out and buy a kilt: he trades the German outfit for the Scottish, which means he abandons the culture and the people with whom he presumably had a positive relationship to jump into another he never realized was part of him.

What was so wrong with the German culture he (apparently) had embraced so enthusiastically? Presumably, he was welcomed there and the short visit we have with him from the content of the commercial suggests he might even have been a “life of the party.”

But all of a sudden, he’s done with it, just because he learns his family comes from Scotland.

Is it just me, or does this make zero sense?

The message of this kind of spot is that your past somehow has to change your present. But it seems to me that this kind of information can only change your present and future if you allow it to. This is to say, there was no valid reason for this guy to abandon the German culture he had so voluntarily embraced when he had no documented evidence he actually was German.

He spent all that time — however much time it was — acting like a German without being German. But if he enjoyed that time and built good relationships, what, exactly is so wrong with that?

It might be fun, even eye-opening, to learn what your ancestry actually is. But I think if you allow that kind of information to completely transform your life just so you can become something you think you’re “supposed” to be, you’re not necessarily using that information the best way you can.

Maybe this guy still keeps in touch with his German friends. I sure hope he does. It’d be a shame to abandon them for no better reason than this.

Have you ever traced your ancestry? If so, how much do you think learning where you’re from should change your everyday habits?

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