Can an act so nuanced ever be described as a cultural ‘norm’
Taking your shoes off inside the house, it does not feel like a topic that warrants much discussion. In fact, when I first decided to write about this I had in mind a whimsical piece that would talk in a jovial manner about wearing our best socks. Being a writer who does not want all of my work to come off as thinly veiled narcissism I thought it would be remiss of me to only speak of my personal experience and reasons for taking my shoes off indoors.
A quick Google search would like you to believe that this is a Western Culture v Eastern culture. Ahh if life we that simple and binary, spoiler alert it isn’t that simple.
Let’s look first at what is said, the common narrative. If the world was a Wikipedia page then we would assume that Asia and the Middle East remove their shoes. That The United States do not take their shoes off but it is required in Alaska and Hawaii. Canada also carries the no shoe tradition. In the world of wiki there is no Central and South America, certainly not where the subject of shoes indoors is concerned. It is odd not to mention all of the Americas as Wiki really went to town discussing Europe and shoes.
According to Wikipedia; Germany, Austria and Northern Europe do not wear shoes indoors. The Netherlands, Ireland and the U.K. leave their shoes on but will remove them if asked to. Spain and Portugal are singled out to say they are shoe wearers unless it is a rare case. But wait Wiki splits Europe up further after neglecting to mention an entire continent, it goes on the say that in Eastern Europe, as in the Slavic countries and South Eastern Europe as in the Balkans, do traditionally remove shoes. The page decided to split Eastern and South Eastern Europe up despite the general rule and reasoning being the same.
It is important to remember that when speaking of culture it comes with both a capital and small c.
When we speak of a cultural norm, or indeed a tradition we can speak about it in terms of a wider context attached to a countrywide norm, or based on religion and ceremony. There is however such strength in family norms and traditions and these are often followed and held more vehemently so it would be remiss of me to ignore their importance with the great shoe debate.
So what about my own personal history with taking shoes off indoors.
Growing up my first real living memory of shoes being an issue was in school. You would have indoor pumps and outdoor shoes and changing them accordingly was very important, is this still a thing I would love to know. I have such bad memories of this because I have always been a physically awkward human, so it stands to reason that I was a physically awkward child. The playtime in the morning and afternoon was short around 20 minutes, so for me, a child who took her time over things, who was not very good holding their own in a bustling crowd of children racing into the cloak room time pressure was an issue. I was not very good at tying laces or in fact doing my buckles up and Velcro was not really a thing then. This meant that playtime was then very short, I would miss out on joining a group for a game only adding to my isolation, (I was isolated and bullied for a multitude of reasons that I will not discuss here), and this led to me becoming unreasonably stressed out about the shoe changing. This small task that should be easy and painless caused me so much anxiety during those primary school days. I had a new reason to resent staff as their shoes were worn indoors and I felt like this was a them and us war, but over indoor pumps. Did I mention I was a highly strung child or did you just pick up on that vibe?
My maternal side of the family is Indian so when I now ask people to remove their shoes there is an immediate assumption that oh that is a cultural thing then. I have even had people throw a bit of casual racism my way when I mention shoes indoors declaring, “well of course Indians do it they are filthy”, unlike those super clean British streets that people don’t spit on and men never sprinkle with piss.
Wearing shoes indoors spreads dirt, germs and reduces the lifespan of our flooring so why are we still wearing shoes?
For me I do not feel there is a cultural link, not really, I never remember being made to take my shoes off at home. I have distinct memories of my mum’s shoes being just under the gas fire meaning she had walked into the living room with them on. We never wore our shoes upstairs though. I never remember my granny taking them off. I did ask her once, when I was in my twenties if she used to take her shoes off growing up in India and why she no longer did as a matter of course. She said yes but no one takes them off here. I didn’t ask further questions but I imagine fitting in with cultural norms when you move to a new country is important. I know when I have lived overseas it is my first instinct to find the unsaid norms and adopt them.
When I had my first flat, well flat share I was 17 and poor. I have always had a nesting instinct and I made the best of the space. The carpet, even after cleaning was still ugly so I laid blankets all over it, very impractical but very soft under foot. It was from this point on I became an ardent shoes off inside person. I would not let anyone more than a few steps from the front door with outdoor shoes on even if I was drunk and inviting a certain someone back to my room for fun and frolic. No first they took their shoes off – sexy times eh!
I did a little pop survey around my friendship group about shoes in the UK and it is a real mixed response and most of the time boiled down to culture with a small c, be that the family norm as to their opinion on shoes in the house. They never wore them growing up and continue down this road. But ahh the Brits they do like to put a special nuance on everything and being born and raised here I too have many of those quirks. When you stand in someone’s house and ask them is it okay if I……; smoke, plug my phone in, sleep with your wife, you would expect a straightforward answer. This is Britain and telling you what we want would be far too easy, so we won’t. When someone asks, “Should I take my shoes off?” A British person will often respond with, “No, no you’re fine.” What they most likely mean is this, (of course I want you to take your shitty dirty shoes off, I have scrimped and saved for this flooring and you are covering it in all kinds of staining fluids and ooze, not to mention the tiny microbes of disease. But you have gone and bloody asked me instead of just taking them off and leaving them with the pile of shoes by the door that should have been a fucking clue as to what action you should have taken. Now I have to say it is fine because I am British, as well you knew, you diabolical swine, I cannot appear rude and unhost-worthy by asking you to show my home consideration. I have to let you put rings on my furniture even through there is a pile of coasters right by your drink. So do come in and desecrate everything that I have worked for whilst I smile and offer you a biscuit and watch you stamp crumbs into my rug with your muddy shoes you bastard.’ We are probably thinking something like that.
When something as seemingly insignificant as the removal of shoes indoors causes stress and anxiety one can only be in Britain, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Awkwardness and embarrassment is probably at the root of why any British person still wears shoes indoors. Just imagine the anxiety a Brit would feel at the prospect of being asked to take their shoes off; are they smelling today, is there a hole in my socks, does this outfit work without these shoes, will my new academic radio 4 listening friends judge my hello kitty socks? Stress makes cortisol guys and cortisol kills. The struggle is real. I am now, in preparation for being able to have friends over for post Covid pasta by making a basket of knitted slippers. You can find the tutorial over on my IGTV, see the seamless way that I worked the cute blogging portion of the post in.
Taking dirty shoes off, or indeed removing shoes with heals that can cause damage seems like a no brainer. In fact I read a rather icky study entitled; Forensic Analysis of the Microbiome of Phones and Shoes that left my skin crawling. In testing shoes worn for three months, researchers found an average of 421,000 units of bacteria per shoe, including those that typically live in intestines or faecal matter, like E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae. More recently, in a study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, researchers found that approximately half of the health care workers in ICUs at a Wuhan, China, hospital had the coronavirus on their shoes.
My goodness we managed to shoe-horn a lot into this post with full and frank insights on the subject of shoes indoors. On one side we have the spread of dirt and disease coupled with the ruining of your flooring. On the other side of the coin you may be very embarrassed about your socks. I will leave you to dissect this at your leisure and if you pop round for a visit don’t ask me about your shoes just look at the clues by the doorstep and use a fucking coaster. Take care my lovelies.