Weary holiday party-goers will be all too familiar with the occasional request to take their shoes off upon entering a host’s house. I say `occasional’ only on the basis of observations within my own social circles; for some people, this request may never arise, while for others it may be just an accepted part of life that to enter a house one must first de-clad one’s feet. This gives rise to the embarrassment of modelling the holey socks of oneself and/or one’s offspring to fellow party-goers, the need to hop around awkwardly for a few moments while performing the act, and a vaguely-humiliated, not-really-wanted feeling upon arrival not unlike that experienced in an airport security line. But the ritual of the shoe take-off must presumably fill some need of someone’s, or else we would expect it to disappear from our world. The question to be asked in this forum is whether this ritual is justifiable on economic grounds.
Whenever I have asked people about their reasons for requesting the shoe take-off, the responses have centered around preserving the cleanliness of their home. `Maintaining the carpet’ and `not tracking in dirt’ are typically the front-running explanations. This then implies at first blush that for the ritual to be economically justifiable, the costs of the shoe take-off (which are borne by the off-takers) must be outweighed by the benefits associated with the marginal contribution to house cleanliness and/or carpet life achieved by having every entrant remove their shoes. Now, given that a clean home is mainly enjoyed by those who live there, rather than by those who visit, any such benefits flow mainly to the hosts, meaning that we can immediately see that the entire exercise involves cost-shifting from the hosts – who would otherwise, perhaps, clean more – onto the guests. One might say that this is a simple cost-based adjustment for an externality, but then the question would arise of why guests are not pressed into service at parties to clean up after themselves in other ways. Presumably, they are not asked to do so because by inviting people into one’s home, one is signalling that one is prepared to serve food, clean up dishes, provide entertainment, and so forth. Why, for some hosts, does their hospitality not include enduring the costs of marginally dirtier post-party flooring?
This leads us to ponder the nature of the benefit. What is valuable about a clean floor? It is certainly true that maintaining some level of basic domestic cleanliness helps to contain diseases and prevent colonization by pests, but in the homes I have observed that feature the shoe take-off ritual, the general level of cleanliness is far above this basic level. Even if forty people were to come galloping through the typical shoe-take-off house in regular shoes (i.e., not having come right off a farm) for a party every weekend, I would expect no increase in pest colonization or disease prevalence provided that the household’s normal cleaning routines – say, a decent sweep or vacuum once or twice a week – continued. Then there is the question of the marginal wear and tear on carpeted floors caused by shoes: would a carpet stepped on by shoes at parties wear out more quickly than one stepped on only by socks or bare feet? A brief web search reveals that those in the industry believe that the lifespan of a carpet is far more affected by the owners’ innate propensity to redecorate, the type of carpet fiber, what is under the carpet, and whether the carpet is subject to regular cleaning, than by whether people walk upon it shod. Again, if regular cleaning continued, guests’ shoes should not be associated with worse outcomes.
We then must enter the realm of the abstract and intangible. Whatever the benefit derived by the hosts from the shoe take-off, it is not measurable in terms of improved health or additional hours of `required’ cleaning saved, but in terms of internal joy from satisfying some aesthetic objective or some social notion of what one should do. Naturally, those hosts who would clean more in the absence of the shoe take-off ritual would indeed experience a real economic cost, namely the opportunity cost of their hours spent on additional cleaning, but if this time is not in fact required in order to contain diseases and pests or delay the replacement of the carpet, then it is only for internal rewards that anyone would pay this cost. What is going on here?
Before opening up this question to the floor, which I expect includes a few people who require their house guests to remove shoes upon entry, let me offer a few candidate explanations.
1- The hosts are using the ritual to demand an `entry fee’ of their guests, which if paid (i.e,. if the guests do not turn on their heels and leave when asked to remove their shoes) places the hosts in an implicitly powerful position relative to their guests. The message is essentially, `if you agree to pay this price to enter my home, then what is available here must be valuable to you.’ 2- The hosts are signalling to guests their adherence to norms of extreme cleanliness that they believe are associated with membership in circles of success. They are hence basically trying to prove to their guests that they are people of standing. 3- The hosts are trying to prevent a rise in their own anxiety levels caused by the threat to their self-esteem that they would perceive if their floors were to become dirty. Ultimately this explanation boils down to social reasons, but for this explanation to be correct then the expectation of a clean house must have already been strongly internalized (through social conditioning) as a central part of the way the host views and judges himself, regardless of immediate social reward. 4 – The hosts derive pleasure from the sense of control over their environment that they derive from having perpetually spotless floors.
Let me finally come clean (ha) and say that I do NOT ask guests to remove their shoes when entering my house. Let’s see what others think about this little ritual![First three comments below:] 3 Responses to No Shoes Allowed!
December 30, 2013 at 10:43 am
I like number two – the idea of
signalling high society membership via demands for shoe removal fits with my own
experiences. Goes alongside other methods to achieve the same end, perhaps, such
as serving tea in impractically small, dangerously thin china cups.
own guess revolves around risk aversion. The vast majority of house guests will
cause negligible extra damage to the owner’s floors by keeping their shoes on,
but a small fraction will either be wearing terrible footwear (e.g. soccer
studs, stiletto heels, tradesman boots) or have inadvertently stepped in
something unpleasant. This minority have the potential to make a serious impact.
Since it is both costly and socially inappropriate to inspect each guest’s shoes
at the door, a homeowner whose floors are important to them (whether due to cost
or psychic utility gains from having spotless carpets) is better off applying a
blanket rule to prevent disaster.
December 30, 2013 at 11:54 am
I think I’d add that for many it may
also just be what their parents did or what they see their friends doing. So for
them I suppose the questions are who is Patient Zero, why did they start asking
people, and why were they influential enough to get this started? All of that is
related to the second possible answer you gave, but I think this assumes less
ambition and rather just an urge to fit in.
Another possibility is that
people may want a more informal atmosphere, and you have to admit that not
wearing shoes takes the formal edge off practically any outfit. If someone
turned up in a tuxedo and you made them take their shoes off, they suddenly look
ridiculous rather than suave.
Cameron Murray (@Rumplestatskin)
December 30, 2013 at 12:15 pm
Wouldn’t the obvious place to look for
an answer be in the differences between the ‘shoe removing’ cultural norms of
various countries? Look at Japan, were shoe removing is the most extreme ritual
– not only do you remove your shoes, you then wear ‘house shoes’ sometimes even
different ‘bathroom shoes’.
Obviously in rural communities and snowy
climates there is an obvious cleanliness benefit, which may have evolved simply
into ritual/custom, whereby people design their homes for non-shoe-wearing, with
softer floor coverings etc. There is some kind of cultural lock-in effect
Australia is odd in that the mix of first and second
generation immigrants from a wide variety of countries with different
shoe-removing rituals will leave you confused – there is no widely accepted
Australian shoe custom, and hence no dominant custom to override the various