In many cultures it's customary to remove your shoes before entering a home for both spiritual and practical reasons. Americans who have adopted the custom find that it minimizes the tracking in of dirt and pesticides. So when I tacked a small sign outside my front door that read "Shoes Off, Please" a while back, I had no idea it might offend anyone. But I discovered that people have strong feelings about this issue. Some agree with me -- they insist that guests take off their shoes before entering their home. Others feel it's disrespectful if guests leave their shoes on but they don't make a fuss about it. Still others are uncomfortable when visitors strip down to their socks or bare feet. And a surprisingly large number of folks are insulted if they're asked to remove their shoes in someone else's house.
Where anyone stands on this questions probably has 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 from childhood to take off your shoes when you enter a home. From Japan 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 Japanese houses, it's polite to place shoes neatly to the side or in a getabako (shoe cupboard) upon entering a home. As guests step into the next room, the host will usually provide a selection of slippers. It's also common to remove shoes in Scandinavian countries, and here in the United States, both Alaskans and Hawaiians have adopted the custom. My own family is from rural Georgia, and I wasn't taught to take off my shoes. But as an adult who has traveled and lived in a variety of places, I've come to appreciate this custom for its thoughtfulness and practicality.
One obvious reason for the shoeless rule is to protect the appearance and the lives of carpets and floors. The finish on many wood floors is quickly ruined by the scuff of hard-soled street shoes. In some places taking off shoes has become a preventive health measure. In 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 poisoning.
In a recent warning about lead exposure, the Environmental Protection Agency endorses the practice of removing shoes. A 1991 report to the Air and Waste Management Association, nicknamed the Door Mat Study, found that lead-contaminated soil causes almost all the lead dust exposure 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.
Many Japanese people cite yet another compelling reason for removing shoes before entering their homes: to relax. Slipping out of shoes and into soft slippers serves as a simple but mindful ritual that helps them let go of the outside world as they cross the threshold of home. This may seem insignificant, but the repetition of such simple practices can help you slow down and become more connected to your body and the environment. Leaving your shoes at the door can signal to the psyche that you're making the transition from business to family, from commerce to quiet -- that you're entering sacred 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 wiggle their toes.
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. When my 85-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 guests ask if they should remove their shoes, I encourage them to but don't insist on it. In fact, every once in a while, I forget the rule myself. 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 every time, 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. And many people tend to get cold feet easily because of 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 for their bare feet.
Deena Wade is a freelance writer living in Boulder, Colorado. From Natural Home (Jan./Feb. 2004). Subscriptions: $24.95/yr. (6 issues) from Box 552, Mt. Morris, IL 61054.