Shoeless in Sheboygan

| March / April 2004

Taking your shoes off at the front door is healthy, calming -- and surprisingly controversial

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.