In many countries like Germany, Switzerland, Skandinavian countries etc. it is common use to take off the shoes when entering someone’s home (*). The custom of removing shoes is widespread also in Eastern countries like Japan, Korea and Turkey.
In these countries it is considered a major faux pas to walk through a house with shoes on. In some schools in Sweden, children are even required to remove their shoes.
In Japan, removing shoes has also a very practical matter. Traditionally, the floors in Japanese dwellings were covered with tatami mats which are used to sit on and to sleep on instead of chairs and beds. Wearing shoes into the house would bring the mud, dirt, dust and bacteria into the house and you would sit and sleep in all that. Even if the pavement technology has pretty much improved and hard flooring is quite common in Japanese houses nowadays, the tradition of taking off shoes remains.
Removing shoes before entering a home is more a cultural rather than a religious tradition, it is important to know that some religions require removing shoes before entering a house of worship or a temple: muslims remove their shoes before entering a mosque, Hindus remove their shoes before entering a temple and Sikhs do the same before entering a gurdwara. People used to do so for religious reasons will also be more sensible about it in their own house.
Generally, we could say that from a cultural point of view, it is considered a mark of respect if guests remove their shoes while entering someone’s home.
Many people feel uncomfortable when asked to remove their shoes when entering someone’s home. They feel as if it is an imposition, a demand for a level of intimacy that they may not be willing to have with the person they’re visiting. Some also don’t want to show their feet or their socks or stockings, or would even feel mortified to be asked to take off their shoes in public, simply because in their culture it is not common.
The main reason for removing shoes is health
“In the 15th century one was not allowed to enter a room without taking off shoes in Holland. One can only imagine the human and animal sewage that one would walk through out in the world at that time, so removing shoes would be a precaution against illness-causing bacteria”. (Annie B. Bond)
Since municipal sewage systems took hold and cars and trains did supersede animal transportation, we could say that the original health reasons behind removing shoes fell away.
But new studies show that while we may no longer be tracking in as much bacteria on our shoes, we are tracking in dangerous pollutants. Therefore it may be time to return to the practices of the 15th century to protect the health of our homes. In her article about this topic, the Health Home Expert Annie B. Bond, lists up many examples that should convince people to take off their shoes at home.
Pesticides, toxic coal tar, lead etc. are tracked into homes on shoes. Taking off shoes at the door is even more important if you have carpets, which are “sink hole(s) for toxins of all kinds” that are brought into the home on shoes and boots “including pollens, lead, pesticides and more”. Furthermore, infants and young children spend most of the time on the floor (not in all cultures!) and are much closer to the floor, put toys that have been on the floor into their mouth etc. “With their growing central nervous systems and developing immune systems, toxic chemicals can be especially damaging”. The same applies to pets who are also vulnerable to exposure because commonly lying on the floor or carpet.
(*) I would like to point out that, contrary to what I said in the first version of this post (published on Sunday the 24th November), it is not common anymore to take off the shoes in every home in the Netherlands. I quickly asked my Dutch friends who confirmed that they did not always do it and, what I found particularly interesting: they do it when they have small children (babies or toddlers) who play on the floor. – I would like to thank Rakael, who pointed this out in the reply section and made me realize that my data was not accurate enough and partly based on obsolete observations made by others.
When to ask and when not to ask to take off the shoes…
I grew up with the habit to take off my shoes every time I came home but I lived in a country where people didn’t have this habit and was used not to do so when entering their home. I ended up combining both habits for my own family. I do expect my family and close friends to take off their shoes as a sign of respect and intimacy. I also ask children to take off their shoes when they come in for obvious health reasons, especially when I know that they will play on the floor and go up and down the stairs (one of our house-rules is: no shoes upstairs or on the stairs).
Considering all the general factors mentioned above – religion, culture, health – one thing has to be pointed out. Taking off the shoes is a sign of intimacy with the guests and we have to be flexible enough to make exceptions.
I would not ask a superior to take off his or her shoes when visiting, or if I have an official gathering at my house. Personally, I would also feel very uncomfortable to ask someone I don’t really know to remove his or her shoes at the doorstep. Also, I usually don’t ask friends to take off their shoes if they’ll only stay downstairs and probably go in our garden or if I know that there will be other guests who feel less comfortable with taking off their shoes.
In general, in our house shoes are allowed downstairs when we have guests who don’t have to (for reasons mentioned above) or can’t take off their shoes. Some of our friends have diabetes or other medical conditions which require that they keep their shoes on.
It helps that we don’t have carpets downstairs and I usually clean the floors after people walked in with shoes; especially when workers came into the house.
If it is considered a faux pas to not take off the shoes in some cultures, it is also considered a faux pas to take them off in cultures where people is not used to this habit. It can be very embarassing entering a room in socks where everyone else wears shoes…
In my opinion it is a matter of cultural intelligence to ponder if it’s better to wear shoes or take them off when visiting.
Some tips for the guest and the host
If you visit someone’s home and are not sure if you’ll be asked to take off your shoes, you can ask your host right after the welcome or look what other guests did while entering the home (usually hosts would direct you to the place where to take off your shoes if this is desired).
If you know that you will visit someone from a culture where you will probably be asked to leave your shoes at the doorstep and don’t want to be offered slippers by your host, I have a small advice: bring a pair of socks with you or house shoes. I usually have some socks in my handbag just in case.
If you are the host there are some ways to make your guests feel more comfortable and relaxed if you want them to take off their shoes. If you know that your guests don’t have the same habit, you can advise them beforehand and ask them to bring some slippers or socks – of course, if you are close enough friends! You can also offer clean (!) house slippers in various sizes available for your guests, but don’t be surprised if the guest does not accept; many people don’t like to take on “used” shoes. It’s a matter of hygiene and putting on someone elses’ shoes can feel gross to some people.
In order to respect the privacy of your guest, foresee a place in the entrance where people can sit and comfortably take off their shoes and place them without being eyed by other guests.
As host you should also always consider the option to not ask your guests to take off their shoes. Simply as a sign of respect for their privacy and personal boundaries, especially if they are not close friends or you know that some of them would not be comfortable with this habit.
Do you have the habit to remove your shoes when entering a home? How do you react when asked to remove your shoes? Do you ask people to do so when entering your home?