Take off your shoes… or not?

Table of Contents

 take off shoes photo


In many countries like Germany, Switzerland, Skandinavian countries, Turkey, Japan, Korea etc. it is common use to take off the shoes when entering someone’s home. 

In these countries it is considered a major faux pas to walk through a house with shoes on. This applies also to some places like daycares and schools in some of these countries, where children (and adults) are required to remove their shoes.

In Japan, removing shoes in the genkan, the entryway area of the house, apartment or building, has also a very practical matter. Traditionally, the floors in Japanese dwellings were covered with tatami mats which are used to sit on and to sleep on instead of chairs and beds. Wearing shoes into the house would bring the mud, dirt, dust and bacteria into the house and you would sit and sleep in all that. Even if the pavement technology has pretty much changed and hard flooring is quite common in Japanese houses nowadays, the tradition of taking off shoes remains.

Although removing shoes before entering a home seems more a cultural rather than a religious tradition, it is important to know that some religions require removing shoes before entering a house of worship or a temple: muslims remove their shoes before entering a mosque, Hindus remove their shoes before entering a temple and Sikhs do the same before entering a gurdwara. – People used to do so for religious reasons will also be more sensible about it in their own house and the house of others.

Generally, we could say that from a cultural point of view, it is considered a mark of respect if guests remove their shoes while entering someone’s home.

Many people feel uncomfortable when asked to remove their shoes when entering someone’s home. They feel as if it is an imposition, a demand for a level of intimacy that they may not be willing to have with the person they’re visiting. Some also don’t want to show their feet or their socks or stockings, or feel mortified to be asked to take off their shoes in public, simply because in their culture it is not common, and showing feet without shoes equals with a clear level of intimacy.

The main reason for removing shoes is health

“In the 15th century one was not allowed to enter a room without taking off shoes in Holland. One can only imagine the human and animal sewage that one would walk through out in the world at that time, so removing shoes would be a precaution against illness-causing bacteria”. (Annie B. Bond)

Since municipal sewage systems took hold and cars and trains did supersede animal transportation, we could say that the original health reasons behind removing shoes fell away.

But new studies show that while we may no longer be tracking in as much bacteria on our shoes, we are tracking in dangerous pollutants. Therefore it may be time to return to the practices of the 15th century to protect the health of our homes. In her article about this topic, the Health Home Expert Annie B. Bond, lists up many examples that should convince people to take off their shoes at home.

Pesticides, toxic coal tar, lead etc. are tracked into homes on shoes. Taking off shoes at the door is even more important if you have carpets, which are “sink hole(s) for toxins of all kinds” that are brought into the home on shoes and boots “including pollens, lead, pesticides and more”. Furthermore, infants and young children spend most of the time on the floor (not in all cultures!) and are much closer to the floor, put toys that have been on the floor into their mouth etc. “With their growing central nervous systems and developing immune systems, toxic chemicals can be especially damaging”. The same applies to pets who are also vulnerable to exposure because commonly lying on the floor or carpet.

When to ask and when not to ask to take off the shoes…

I grew up with the habit to take off my shoes every time I came home but I lived in a country where people didn’t have this habit and was used not to do so when entering their or other people’s home either. In Italy, my friends would rather ask visitors to step on the pattine to protect the marmor floors in the house. 

I ended up combining both habits for my own family. I expect my family and close friends to take off their shoes as a sign of respect and intimacy. I also ask children to take off their shoes when they come in for obvious health reasons, especially when I know that they will play on the floor and go up and down the stairs (one of our house-rules is: no shoes upstairs or on the stairs).

Considering all the general factors mentioned above – religion, culture, health – one thing has to be pointed out. Taking off the shoes is a sign of intimacy with the guests and we have to be flexible enough to make exceptions.

This means that if a guest feels uncomfortable taking off his shoes when visiting, I would not ask him to take off his shoes. The same goes for official gatherings at my house: I would make sure everyone stays downstairs, and surely clean thoroughly after the gathering.

Personally, I would also feel very uncomfortable to ask someone I don’t really know to remove his or her shoes at the doorstep. I usually don’t ask friends to take off their shoes if they’ll only stay downstairs and probably go in our garden, or if I know that there will be other guests who feel less comfortable with taking off their shoes.

In general, in our house shoes are allowed downstairs when we have guests who don’t have to (for reasons mentioned above) or can’t take off their shoes. Furthermore, as a sign of respect for my friends who have diabetes or other medical conditions which require that they keep their shoes on, I would refrain from asking them to remove their shoes.

It helps not to have carpets on the ground floor. But if inevitable for the reasons just mentioned or when workers come into the house, I always clean after they left. On a side-note, I was pleasantly surprised and very thankful when workers took off their shoes lately when they walked into our home. 

If it is considered a faux pas to not take off the shoes in some cultures, it is also considered a faux pas to take them off in cultures where people is not used to it. It can be very embarrassing entering a room in socks where everyone else wears shoes…

In my opinion it is a matter of cultural intelligence to ponder if it’s better to keep the shoes on or take them off when visiting.

Some tips for the guest and the host

If you visit someone’s home and are not sure if you’ll be required to take off your shoes, you can ask your host when you visit or observe what other guests do while entering the home – usually hosts would direct you to the place where to take off your shoes if this is desired, or you would spot a clear area at the entrance like the Japanese genkan.

If you know that you will visit someone from a culture where you will probably be asked to leave your shoes at the doorstep and don’t want to be offered slippers by your host, here is my advice: bring a pair of socks, slippers or house-shoes with you. I usually carry some in my handbag or have them in my car, just in case.

If you are the host there are some ways to make your guests feel more comfortable and relaxed if you want them to take off their shoes. If you know that your guests don’t have the same habit, you can advise them beforehand and ask them to bring some slippers or socks – of course, if you are close enough friends! You can also offer clean (!) house slippers in various sizes available for your guests, but don’t be surprised if the guest does not accept; many people don’t like to wear “used” shoes. It’s a matter of hygiene and putting on someone else’s shoes can feel gross.

In order to respect the privacy of your guest, foresee a place in the entrance where people can sit and comfortably take off their shoes and place them without being eyed by other guests. 

If you don’t want to explain the rule in your house, you can put up a sign that clearly tells guests what is expected. 

And as mentioned above, as a host you should always consider the option to not ask your guests to take off their shoes. Simply as a sign of respect for their privacy and personal boundaries, especially if they are not close friends or you know that some of them would not be comfortable with this habit.

Do you have the habit to remove your shoes when entering a home?

How do you react when asked to remove your shoes?

Do you ask people to do so when entering your home?

No shoes

(I published this post also on my blog expatsincebirth.com)

10 Comments

  1. In Thailand it would be extremely rude to wear shoes in other people’s house. Because it is so common for Thai people to sit or lay on the floor. And it is very hard for Asian people to understand why many westerns walk around in their house with their shoes since shoes get to expose to every dirtiness from the ground that you walk on outside. Why would you want to bring that dirty things in to your house ?

    • Thank you, Pam, for adding this detail. Especially in cultures where people sit or lay on the floor it is unacceptable to walk in with shoes. I can completely understand this feeling when someone walks into your house and in your rooms with shoes: it feels not only rude but disrespectful. Alas, many westerns are not aware of this. My tip would be to gently ask them to put off their shoes – and usually one would see the shoes lined up at the entry – and explain what it is all about. I wouldn’t mention the dirt, I would mention that taking off the shoes is a sign of respect for the owner of the house in your culture. Usually nobody intends to be disrespectul when invited to a new home.

  2. I keep a no shoe home. I realized long ago many people are uncomfortable with this. So I keep disposable shoe covers and some pairs of cheap socks( visitors just take them with them) at the entrance in my foyer. It’s not expensive and gently solves the problem of those not willing to abide my the rules of my home,

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  6. Ute, article shows what you have observed in some parts of the world but it is very shallow and is biased, I think.
    For Hindus keeping your shoes outside the home is based on well defined science and basic hygiene practices which have been followed for ages. With the belief that temple and your home, both are holy places people have been following practice of removing shoes to maintain the purity of institutions.

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