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Barefoot is Not Backward at Home

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You’re dressed to the nines for a dinner party, including the perfect pair of matching shoes. When you arrive at the home of your host, you are promptly directed to remove your stylish heels. What’s your reaction?

Your toddler constantly crawls along the floor of your house, putting anything she finds directly into her mouth. When a friend visits with older children, they all march inside wearing sneakers, telling about their fun morning at soccer practice. Should you say anything?

Whether to dress your feet or go shoeless inside the home has long been a culturally diverse issue. Some first- and second-generation US citizens still observe a homeland tradition of removing shoes at the door. Others regard clicking around the house in dress shoes to be a purely American sort of freedom. Although I remember my grandmother keeping gleaming, honey-colored, hardwood floors, I recall that she managed to keep them clean despite constant shoe-wearing inside the house. She would have perceived bare or socked feet as uncivilized, at least in adults. My family today takes seriously the task of keeping floors clean, and we enjoy welcoming guests to take off their shoes and stay awhile!

Scientific studies offer reasons to consider whether you want shoes in your house today, beyond culture or cosmetics. When microbiologists at the University of Arizona swabbed the outsides of shoes that had been worn for more than three months, they found fecal bacteria on nine out of ten of them. The long list of overall bacteria found includes such stomach churning names as E coli (causes intestinal and other infections), pseudomonas (can cause bloodstream infection in those with weak immune systems), and serratia ficaria (rare cause of respiratory infections). The report concludes that the shoes must have been coming into contact with fecal coliform and E coli bacteria in places such as public restrooms or around animals outdoors. Researchers found that unless shoes were thoroughly washed, they would continue to track the bacteria for long distances. Although the Rockport shoe company sponsored the study in an effort to promote washable shoes, even one of the researchers, Charles Gerba, PhD, admits that removing shoes indoors is, “a good idea.” Gerba says he and his colleagues were surprised at how many bacteria were growing on the bottoms of the shoes. You can reach Dr. Gerba at this U of A link.

You may have heard of various studies about pesticides or other toxins that people have unknowingly tracked indoors over past decades. The Environmental Protection Agency sponsored a study that replicated “particulate matter” that could be any sort of thing you might not want on your floor, to discover how the stuff is tracked. You can see details of the study at this public EPA site. Scientists found that once a shoe was loaded with “particulate matter,” between 40% and 80% of that stuff would come off the shoe in the first step. Similarly, the researcher in the U of A study explained that often the dirtiest part of the floor would be the first three or four feet inside the entrance to a home. The EPA study called for the test shoes to track onto carpeting. Researchers summarized that on the second and subsequent steps, a shoe would track about 2% of whatever it carried, onto the carpet. There was also a small amount of dirty stuff that kept coming back onto the shoe (about 1%) from the carpet itself.

If you find the thought of tracking in mystery materials a little unsettling, there are ways to prevent it without making your house guests feel uncomfortable. I asked etiquette expert Diane Gottsman for help with this touchy subject. Gottsman says a clean, clutter-free location near the door should be ready for guests before they arrive, perhaps with a pair of shoes there as an example. She says the host should be prepared to politely guide guests to this spot by saying something like, “would you mind leaving your shoes right here?” Although providing clean shoe covers for contractors hired to work inside the house might be okay, Gottsman says it would be offensive to expect guests to wear them. She says house slippers would feel awkward, as well, to most people these days. Rather, guests would typically prefer to stay in socks or bare feet. If an exception is needed for someone who can’t go without shoes for medical reasons, the etiquette expert hopes we would all be gracious and use good judgment. Gottsman says a good guest will take the cue from the host, perhaps asking, “would you like us to leave our shoes at the door?” In the case of the guest who can’t take a hint, Gottsman says it’s okay to lightly, politely explain that a child has allergies, is still crawling, etc. Diane Gottsman is a nationally recognized etiquette expert and the owner of The Protocol School of Texas. You can reach her at http://www.protocolschooloftexas.com/.

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2 Responses to Barefoot is Not Backward at Home

  1. Christy Ogle February 20, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    I have to say I am loving your blog! I found it today and will now be a faithful reader 🙂

    I lived in Japan for 4 years and have since adopted the custom of removing my shoes at the door. Many homes there had a basket of fresh slippers by the door for guests to don after they removed their shoes. It seemed like a warm welcome, as well as a way to encourage people to respect the tradition. The research here gives me even more reason to continue to keep a shoe-less house!

  2. Rev. Jonathan Warren September 20, 2010 at 1:37 pm #

    Interesting.

    When I was growing I used to always hate putting on my shoes and taking them off when I left. The first thing I like to do when I get home is to take off my shoes. If guests are coming over I usually put on my shoes or sandals so that they don’t feel like they have to take off their shoes.

    When I was in Kenya we were expected to take off our shoes at every home. It was very dusty and dirty and people cleaned much differently there then they do here. If you were a guest for some time they would provide house shoes if you didn’t have them.

    It sounds like there is no set cultural rule in our country. I guess it depends on the family.

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