Hi, Carolyn: I've just changed my family name from my father's to my maternal grandmother's. My father is (and always has been) a horrible, abusive person, and I've wanted to make the name change for years.
A few people know the reason, but what do I say to everyone else? "Why did you change your name?" is a perfectly reasonable question in this situation, so "Wow" or "Seriously?" aren't appropriate responses. But, "The man is a monster, and using his name makes me want to cry or vomit or both," while true and accurate, doesn't work, either. Can you come up with a gentle answer that's bland and polite and that closes the discussion?
— New Name
New Name: “I’m honoring my grandmother.” Or just, “I like this one better.” I take your point that it’s a more reasonable nosy question than other nosy questions, but, really, no one needs to know the why, just the what. So it’s still a nosy question.
It would be lovely if, in response to hearing someone’s news — meaning, not in the course of real, intimate conversation — people would ask themselves before they put any inquiries into words: “Do I really need to know this?” The answer in sooo many cases is no.
Congrats on taking this step — must feel liberating. Don’t let bystanders take that away from you.
Re: Changing your name: No matter what the actual reason, everyone has come up with some bland and mostly believable answer to the inevitable questions by saying how much easier the new name is. If the old name was hard to spell, it's "easier" to have a common one. If the old name was common, it's easier to have a unique one. One friend did it "for professional reasons." Several have said, "There's someone else with the same name in my field, and this avoids confusion." Another to "claim my heritage." People don't really care why. They just want a plausible excuse to settle their mind so they can move on to another topic. Any bland — but not personal — reason will work.
— Been There
Been There: Agreed, thanks. In fact, “Anything bland — but not personal,” is an excellent counter to prying in general.
Re: Name change: I get that some questions are overly presumptuous, but where do you draw the line between being nosy and trying to genuinely express an interest in someone?
— No Nosy
No Nosy: It is a fine line, and I’m glad you asked.
One approach is to preface follow-up questions with: “I don’t want to pry, so I understand if you’d rather not answer.”
Another — tougher to do on the fly, admittedly — is to keep follow-up questions neutral at first and read the person’s comfort level: “Was it a hassle to change your name? I’ve always wondered.” It shows interest, but it sticks to the business of it, not the emotional mechanics of the decision. If a person wants to talk about the more personal part of it, that’s an opening to say, e.g., “It was, but worth it to shed a name I never felt good about.”
So the advice is really to tread lightly and let people tell you how much they’re ready to reveal vs. “So, when ya gonna pop out some kids?”