At a presentation by a group that helps resettle refugees, the speaker was discussing cultural differences that he often has to explain to newcomers. “And yes,” he said with a grimace, “many Americans think nothing of wearing their shoes in the house.”
This elicited an appreciative chuckle from most of the audience. I, however, stared at my feet.
I wear shoes in the house. Just about all the time. Does this make me some kind of uncouth, ugly American? (I mean, more so than all the other things I do that make me an uncouth, ugly American.)
But I’m not alone. It’s part of the culture. Even in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” (1967), Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder found it awkward to be asked to “please remove your shoes.” But then, that whole scene was filled with awkward moments.
Through most of my adulthood, we’ve worn shoes at home–except for a short time when we were in our first apartment. Our two active preschoolers, with their thudding footfalls, were too much for the couple downstairs. We all took off our shoes and went around on tiptoe when our neighbors pounded on the ceiling.
When we bought our first house, though, we wanted the kids (and us) to wear shoes inside. We dropped things. We broke glassware. The kids left little toys (Legos and Barbie accessories) all over the floor. The cats sometimes presented us with … souvenirs.
The kids’ godparents, on the other hand, kept their house shoeless. This must have been confusing to our children (and theirs) when they did play dates. Certainly neither of us was perfect about remembering their practice, which is probably why we seldom got far beyond the entrance hall.
Slowly, though, it dawned on us that this was a cultural–or perhaps generational–thing.
I first noticed the practice when I revisited my college fraternity about 20 years ago. The college bought the 100-year-old house that I remembered and replaced it with a new replica built to code and modern dorm standards. Its entrance hall was crowded with shoes. My hosts asked me to leave mine there, among the collection.
We hadn’t done this in the 1970s, when we clomped around everywhere in our summer Docksiders and winter L.L. Bean hiking boots. The change might have been cultural. The fraternity devotes itself to diversity and has members from all over the country and the world. Or perhaps a pre-med student initiated the policy based on research. I took it as a practical nod to the harsh and muddy New England winters, and followed suit even though it was a hot, dry June.
The “New England mud” theory held water, so to speak, when we first looked at homes in Vermont. The real estate agent showed us several, but asked us to remove our shoes in only a few. The one we eventually bought has an entrance hall with a bench and shoe rack, but he brought us in through the garage and kitchen. Then he asked us to remove our shoes because of the wooden floor.
He didn’t elaborate, but it might have been a house rule. The previous owners were not uncouth, ugly Americans like us. They were a Middle Eastern couple who were moving from their work home in Montreal to a new assignment in Dubai. Perhaps they had brought the practice with them.
Or perhaps it came through Canada. Canadians muck through more snow, mud, and salt than Vermonters do. In this neck of the Vermont woods, though, you can add manure to the mix. You certainly want to keep that out of your living room.
The next generation
Whatever the source of the practice, we try to honor it by adopting a variation on the theme. I have “indoor” and “outdoor” shoes, which can complicate matters because we use multiple exits to the house. Often I forget and wear the outdoor shoes inside, or the other way around. It’s like wearing the left shoe on the right foot, which I have been known to do, too.
Still, it’s better than tracking in, say, mud and leaves from the garden when we’ve been working outside. I’ve been known to do that as well.
The next generation of our family is much more diligent about removing shoes at the door. This is probably from peer influence rather than our own example. Our older daughter lives in Vermont, where it’s a practical matter. Our youngest and her roommate are both horse doctors, which speaks for itself. And that roommate and our daughter-in-law are both from India, where shoes-off-at-home is a cultural norm, for all the reasons described in this India Times article.
Still, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. On their last visit to our place, I had to pull our barefoot son aside with a confession. In unloading the car, I had bombed in and out of the house without removing my shoes. Only then did I realize that I had tracked in with me something brown and sticky.
And it wasn’t a stick.
What is your practice at home? Shoe agnostic? Shoephobic? Strict? Loosey-shoesy? How do you shoe? Why? And what do you think of us clods who do? Let me know in the comments below.