You know the dilemma: you arrive at someone’s house for a visit, enter their immaculate (or even just reasonably clean) home and then think, should I take my shoes off?
Or perhaps you are more familiar with the equal but opposite dilemma: someone arrives at your house for a visit, enters your immaculate (or even just reasonably clean) home and you think, can I ask them to take their shoes off?
Is this a peculiarly British problem? Most of us Brits would rather carve out our eyes with a spoon than trouble a guest to remove their shoes, even if we have cream carpets and it’s a raining outside. Our fear of embarrassment trumps our fear of stained carpets. (Imagine the horror of subjecting your guest to the awkward physical manoeuvres involved in removing footwear; the appalling spectacle of them crouching teeteringly at your feet, struggling desperately with their laces while trying to make polite enquiries and greetings, having to repeatedly look up at you and then down at their shoe until the accursed thing comes off. And how will they feel if they happen to be wearing old, holey socks that day? It’s all just too dreadful to contemplate.)
On the guest side, the dilemma is a relatively new phenomenon. Traditionally, most British visitors would not dream of removing their shoes in someone else’s house unless they know them really well. To do so would be presumptuous and indicate that you are making yourself a bit too much at home. Foot wiping, rather than shoe removal, is usually the order of the day. If it’s damp or raining, the protocol is to spend a good minute on energetic foot wiping on the outdoor, and then again on the indoor, door mat. If the host has failed to place door mats, then a good foot stamp outside is all that can be expected.
Perhaps this will change now that we are all worried about pestilence and plague and germs and contagion. No one wants to think that their visitors are tramping Covid into the house. And no one wants to kill their host by infecting their carpets. Perhaps a global pandemic will be enough for us to overcome our embarrassment and start to ask, kindly but firmly, “this is a shoes-off house, so…would you mind..?”
We need only look to other countries to see that there are clear solutions to this problem. In East Asian and Scandinavian homes, almost everyone takes off their shoes as soon as they enter a home, whether it’s their own or someone else’s. In Sweden, people often bring a pair of house shoes/slippers or indoor shoes with them to change into. In China, hosts will have spare house shoes or slippers available for anyone who arrives. These are two perfectly sensible and practical measures that we could adopt. As for the shoe removal contortions, surely that is simply a matter of making a seat available as people come in. A new UK slipper culture? Let’s make it standard.