Yesterday I was doing a few telephone English tests for my former company. During most of each 10-minute test, I'm asking all of the questions to gauge the student's grammatical accuracy, listening skill, pronunciation, vocabulary and overall competence as a speaker. I assign the student a score from 1-10 (10 being a native speaker) based on how they deal with the questions. Most students score in the 4-6 range, though there are occasional scores of 2, 3, 7, and 8.
Usually, the students are pretty terrified at the beginning and then settle down as the test goes on. I always start off with the most basic of questions phrased very simply and ramp up the difficulty if they appear to be capable of coping with harder questions. By the end of the test, the student is about as relaxed as he's going to get and I always end with, "do you have any questions for me?" I wait until the end because the student just had 8 minutes of my questions as examples.
About half the time, the students won't ask anything. Most of the rest of the time, they ask some bland question about my hobbies. Often the men will ask if I'm married. On occasion they will ask my age. Both of these last two questions are taboo in Japanese culture when asked of a woman. There are subtle ways to ask them without being so blunt. These are the ways I ask such questions. I ask "when were you born", not "how old are you." This allows people to omit the year and just give the date if they are sensitive about their age. I say, "tell me about your family", not "are you married". This allows single people who are uncomfortable about their marital status to not discuss it as they can talk about their parents and siblings.
I'm not sensitive about my age or marital status. I don't mind being asked about either and take no offense when asked this question despite knowing these are considered rude questions for women. However, I do mind being asked in a manner which shows that the student is intentionally breaking with cultural norms because I'm a foreigner and he doesn't mind treating me disrespectfully. Yesterday, my last student of the testing session asked, "how old are you," and immediately started laughing uproariously like a deranged hyena. When I told him I was 44, he guffawed heartily at me again.
A lot of the Uncle Tom foreigners will defend this behavior by saying that he is "nervous". I've dealt with nervous laughter before and that's not what this is. People who are nervous laugh at the start of the test (and as time passes, they may continue to do so) because they are uncomfortable during the entire process. They don't suddenly start loudly bursting into laughter at the end when they ask a question they know to be considered rude in their culture.
I've also lived in Japan long enough to know that one Japanese person would not do this to another who was essentially a stranger to him or her on the phone. They might joke with friends, particularly if they were younger, but the idiot student who did this yesterday was in his 30's so he has no good excuse. Also, keep in mind that this is a business English test done as a requirement of the student's company, not some volitional, casual bit of conversation. The point of the test is for placement in business classes. The point of the classes is to prepare people for doing international business communication. They should be demonstrating some level of poise and professionalism if they can possibly manage it, not carrying on like a school kid.
Most of the time, I try and brush off this sort of behavior. It happens so often that I'd go crazy if I didn't. Yesterday, it really got on my nerves for some reason. As I recently remarked to another blogger in an e-mail message, sometimes I get tired of being a gaijin and would just like to be a human being again.