No shoes allowed!

by

[NB – Joshua says the Core site has had some fits today that resulted in this original post being lost.  I have hence re-posted it below, along with three comments received so far. -gigi]

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!
Daniel
says:
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.

My
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.

REPLY
Chris Shadforth
says:
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.

REPLY
Cameron Murray (@Rumplestatskin)
says:
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
happening.

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
introduced customs.

12 Responses to "No shoes allowed!"
  1. Yes, I think it is partly driven by cultural norms in home countries of immigrants in Australia and may also be affected by the size of apartments/houses and floor coverings. In a small apartment with a carpeted floor (which I hate but rent and so am stuck with) wearing street shoes seems pretty “yucky”. We actually tell guests they don’t have to take off shoes but they usually just follow our lead.

  2. I think you have missed the point of why taking off shoes at the door is a great idea. On an average day a person will walk on ground or lawn sprayed with presticides (council) which can adhere to shoes for up to a week, you also pick up lead from contaminated soil, could walk through public bathrooms and studies have shown you easily pick up pollen, mild spores and even E. coli. So taking off your shoes is for health reasons not cleanliness, especially when you have children that crawl or play once floor.

  3. All,

    Interesting to see the diversity of views here!

    The contention that the shoe take-off ritual involves a cost transfer from hosts to guests seems accepted by everyone, except for Matthew C who essentially claims that some guests like taking their shoes off. The most generous interpretation of this reasoning is equivalent to the argument that the adherence to social norms makes us all happier because uncertainty is thereby reduced. I think there is some merit to that argument, and the same argument supports the comments about cultural lock-in effects, but I see all of that as essentially covered by my second and third reasons above. We are still talking about either a conformity/social image motive, or internal rewards that arise because of early social conditioning about what is the right thing to do. And even if some guests enjoy taking off their shoes, it is still the hosts who live in the marginally cleaner house, not the guests, so I would argue that the hosts still receive most of the benefits associated with the shoe take-off.

    On the risk aversion story proposed by Daniel, I am skeptical. One could make a similar argument about serving staining foods or wine inside: there is a five-percent chance that someone will drop something, and that would be unpleasant to clean up. But hosts still happily take those risks. In fact, spills of staining food or wine are far more likely to cause irreparable damage to a carpet than someone tracking in a glob of dirt that can be cleaned up easily with a bit of water and bi-carb soda. Workmen generally do not galumph into social parties in their work boots, and kids generally don’t show up to parties and stay clad in soccer cleats, mainly because they are uncomfortable. While risk avoidance may be another rationalization used to support the ritual, I don’t think that a risk of significant marginal damage to floors would be better avoided by guests taking off their shoes than by any number of other little rules that a host could foist upon them, and that we don’t observe.

    On cultural lock-in and Cameron’s point that we should look across cultures, I agree. The Japanese are a great example of one extreme, with the English or French close to the other extreme, amongst developed countries, and these patterns may well be sourced in aspects of lifestyle necessitated by conditions affecting those many generations back. But while some cultural path-dependency is no doubt at play, the prevalence of the ritual also varies within countries in ways unrelated to households’ genetic or cultural ancestry. The American social-climbing bourgeois, for example, are pretty fanatical about house cleanliness and many require the shoe take-off, regardless of ethnic origin; welfare-receiving households, generally speaking, do not. Even amongst Australians of western European descent, the prevalence of the ritual is highly variable and seems nonlinearly related to social station: those at the bottom and the very top of society do not require shoe removal, while those in the middle sometimes do. In my experience, households of western European ancestry in the new world that feature the shoe take-off also tend to contain at least one member who is not that secure of her own social worth (hence the offering of option three above). My armchair hypothesis is that she (and it is usually the woman) may use excessive house-cleanliness to support her self-image, feeling good about her role as the one who promotes domestic order and the well-being of her family, or, more darkly, as a way to control the behaviour of others. Because feeling good about oneself is so vitally important to psychological happiness, this linking of self-esteem to house cleanliness then gives rise to all manner of rationalizations about how awful it is to live in a home that is not extremely clean.

    Is there really a link between domestic dirt and health, as Bec claims? From what I can find of hard scientific evidence so far, the link if anything goes the other way in developed countries. It is not that we should entirely give up on cleaning and force-feed our children dirt, but rather that a very low level of ambient germs can result in children’s immune systems not being properly initialized early in life, which – according to the so-called `hygiene hypothesis’ – can lead to the development of all manner of nasty diseases later in life. The idea that we should fear the nasties (pesticides, lead, E. coli, whatever) that we step in every day from entering our sacred homes, even in trace amounts, strikes me as silly. Based on current science, my advice would be to not live right next to a factory or a freeway, invest in a doormat, and stop worrying.

    I agree that it is probably good for the feet and ankles to be left unshod for some portion of the day, and indeed I usually walk around in my house barefoot or in socks because it is more comfortable. But I don’t see this as incompatible with also sometimes wearing shoes in the house.

    All up, if I had to put money on the reason for this little ritual, I would favour a combination of cultural lock-in and social insecurity.

  4. This prompts me to wonder about the economics of something completely different – firearm ownership for self-defence (excluding those who own them for occupational or recreational reasons). Surely for most the probability of ever successfully using a firearm in a self-defence situation is so low that the costs must severely outweigh the expected value, so where is the hidden value being derived?

  5. Adi Bittan planned her wedding at the home of friends in Pescadero, Calif., before realizing that the hosts had a no-shoes rule. “We were worried how that would look and whether our guests would feel uncomfortable or embarrassed,” she said. She solved the problem by buying fun socks — with no-skid soles — as one of the wedding favors. Even she and the groom wore them.

  6. Gigi is right about the overcleanliness actually being detrimental to health. It extends to allergies as well as disease. The OCD that demands the house be spotless like a Vogue magazine pictorial is absurd. Another similar phenomernon is the idea that unless you smell like a perfumery, and your clothes are pressed to the nth degree, and your whites are blindingly white enough to serve as a lighthouse lamp, you are unacceptable. There is a sensible middle ground between troglodyte and NASA clean room.

    • There is strong evidence for the Hygiene Hypthesis which holds that low exposure to germs during childhood can lead to weak immunity or allergies.

      However, Gigi was wrong to relate that to concerns about pesticide and other toxins. The Hygiene Hypothesis is concerned only with bacteria.

      The body is good at developing immunity to bacteria, but it is not so good at dealing with chemicals like pesticides, weed killers and lead.

      Exposing children to weed killer and rat poison does not lead them to develop immunity to those toxins.

      It may be that those risks are minimal, but are the benefits of not having a shoes-off policy worth the small amount of risks inherent in permitting shoes in the house?

      Removing shoes might play only a very small part in protecting children’s health, but it is not something difficult or obnoxious.

  7. kme, the same applies to car ownership. What is the actual benefit derived from tying up so much capital in something that sits idle most of the time? Especially if you work in a place accessible via public transport from your place of residence during the hours of 9am to 5pm? Factoring in maintainence, insurance, depreciation, interest on the loan used to buy it, and consumables?

  8. Countries in colder climates also need to take into account that when you come home, you may have sodden shoes, or overshoes that need not come into the main rooms of the house. Taken with the desire not to track outside dirt onto rugs and carpets, it is a reason for use of shoe racks. Also, I guess if people like Ikea and local cabinet makers have a market already, they have reasons to keep advertising and sustaining that market.

    Japan is not the only country that does this. The Czechs use botniks and pantofle in the same way as the Japanese use their equivalents.

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