When I tacked a small sign outside my front door that read, “Shoes Off, Please,” I had no idea it might offend anyone. As it turns out, however, people have strong feelings about this seemingly pedestrian issue. Some insist that guests take off their shoes before entering their home; others feel it’s disrespectful if guests don’t do so, but they don’t make a fuss. Still others are uncomfortable when visitors strip down to their bare feet or are insulted if they’re asked to remove their own shoes.
Where you or I stand in the on/off dilemma could have a lot to do with where we live, as well as where our families are from. If you’re Asian, for example, there’s a good chance you were taught to take off your shoes when you enter a home. From Thailand to China to India, shoe removal is traditional, although the reasons vary. Cambodians are said to remove their shoes to show respect for elders and maintain quiet. In Japan, where cleanliness is a priority because homes were originally designed for sitting and sleeping close to the floor, the practice keeps people from tracking in mud and dirt. In traditional houses, it’s polite to place shoes neatly to the side or in a getabako (shoe cupboard) upon entering a foyer or mudroom known as a genkan. As guests step into the next room, the host will likely provide a selection of slippers. And if it’s a very traditional household, guests may find when they leave that their shoes have been turned to face the door and placed where they can easily step into them.
It’s also common to remove shoes in Scandinavian countries, and here in the United States, both Alaskans and Hawaiians find it customary. With increased globalization and international travel, we may find ourselves adopting ideas and traditions from other cultures. My own family is from rural Georgia, and I wasn’t taught to take off my shoes when I came indoors. As a child, I might even have considered it an unusual request—the prickly domain of an eccentric aunt who treated her house like a museum, perhaps. But as an adult who has traveled and lived in a variety of places, my view has changed. I’ve come to appreciate this custom for its sentiment and practicality.
3 fun things to do without shoes
1. To rejuvenate your feet, roll a golf ball around under one foot and then the other while you’re sitting, suggests relaxation consultant Darrin Zeer.
2. Share a simultaneous foot massage with your partner or child.
3. Give pedicures to yourself or your friends.
Keeping it clean
One obvious reason for the shoeless rule is to protect the life of carpets and floors. The most popular carpet color in new homes is dirt-magnet beige, and according to one professional cleaner, most carpet damage is caused by particulate soil that accumulates at the base of the carpet fiber. A professional housecleaner estimates that 85 percent of household dirt is carried in on clothing, shoes, or the paws of pets. In addition, the finish on many wood floors is quickly ruined by the scuff of hard-soled street shoes.
Tragically, the pragmatic reasons for limiting footwear to the outdoors aren’t always as benign as muddy footprints. In places such as Herculaneum, Missouri—contaminated from a lead smelter—and King and Pierce Counties in Washington State—where lead and arsenic were found in soil—parents teach children to leave their shoes outside in an effort to reduce lead poisoning. In a recent warning about lead exposure, the Environmental Protection Agency specifically recommends that shoes remain outside the house. According to a report called the Door Mat Study, lead-contaminated soil from the outside causes almost all the lead dust inside homes, and it notes that wiping shoes on a mat and removing them at the door cuts lead dust by 60 percent. The study explains that limiting the amount of dust and track-in may also help reduce exposure to lawn and garden pesticides, wood smoke and industrial toxins, mutagens, dust mites, and allergens.
Feet on the ground
There’s yet another compelling reason that some Japanese have cited for removing their shoes before entering their homes: to relax. Slipping out of shoes and into soft slippers serves as a simple but mindful ritual to let go of the outside world as you cross the threshold of home. It may seem insignificant, but the repetition of simple practices such as these can help you slow down and become more connected to your body and the environment. Leaving your shoes at the door can signal the psyche that you’re entering sacred space. It can be a reminder that you’re transitioning from business to family, from commerce to quiet.
Nutritionist and pranic healer Laurie Bloom emphasizes removing your shoes to help create an energy of sanctity in your living space. A home is not a museum, but it is—or could be—a sanctuary, a healthy place where you can invite yourself and your guests to unwind, relax, and wriggle their toes.
Waiting for the shoe to drop
Despite all the sound reasons to go shoeless indoors, it’s still controversial in our culture. If you’re going to be a shoes-off host, you may have to make some thoughtful decisions concerning your guests. When my eighty-five-year-old friend Alice comes to visit, I don’t ask her to remove her shoes because she needs them to walk comfortably. If a guest overlooks or ignores the sign outside my door, I don’t say anything unless it’s snowing or raining. If they ask about their shoes, I encourage them but don’t insist. In fact, every once in awhile, I myself forget the rule. For shoes-on occasions, I’ve found that placing doormats on both sides of the entryway reduces track-in. You can also use a washable carpet runner in the front hallway.
If you’re going to insist on the no-shoes policy, be prepared for some visitors to disagree. People who aren’t used to taking off their shoes in public feel genuinely awkward, as though you were asking them to partially undress. Others feel their shoes are an essential part of their fashion aesthetic and would feel compromised to remove them. Still others are afraid of stubbing their toes. And many people, especially women, tend to get cold feet easily from poor circulation. So do your best to make it easy for guests. Consider providing a shoe storage bench in your entryway and maybe some attractive, clean slippers or fresh socks for their bare feet.
Want to let your guests know your shoes-off preference in an attractive, gentle way?
Consider a simple engraved stone that says, “Kindly Remove Your Shoes” or “Please Be a Dear and Leave Your Shoes Here” (medium size, $52; large size, $82) from Northwest Stone Wise.
Something more comfortable
Offer yourself and your guests a comfortable and fetching alternative to street shoes with carefully chosen indoor slippers:
• Organic Hemp Unisex Slippers, $35, from Rawganique.
• Corduroy Men’s House Slippers and Chinese Style Ladies Brocade Slippers, $8.99 each or four pairs for $28, from House Rice.
• Yoga Sandals, $24, or Organic Cotton Socks, three pairs for $20, from Gaiam.
• Sheepskin “Wicked Good” Scuffs, $44, from L.L. Bean.
Provide an appealing and practical place to leave outdoor shoes. Berkeley Mills (BerkeleyMills.com) makes a certified sustainably harvested hardwood Arts and Crafts–style blanket chest, $3,900, that creates stunning shoe storage.
You can find handmade Asian-style getabakos (shoe cupboards), $650–$1,000, from Woodistry.
Gaiam also makes a cedar bench with built-in shoe rack for $225.
If you just can’t say no to guests with shoes, consider these products to help keep your floors and carpets clean and allergen free:
• Earthcare Carpet Cleaner & Stain Remover, formulated for extraction-type carpet cleaning machines.
• UltraSteam, a handheld steam cleaner, $50, and MegaSteamer, a midrange steam cleaner, $170, sanitize surfaces and floors and provide allergy relief by killing dust mites and other allergens without chemicals.