Last week on the “Today” show, correspondent Jenna Bush Hager and host Kathie Lee Gifford had a stirring discussion on the health and cleanliness benefits of removing shoes before entering someone’s home — and whether it is rude for a host to even ask.
Gifford was concerned that the request could inadvertently cause shame for some people. “What if you’ve got really ugly, gnarly feet and spent your whole life hiding them?” she wondered.
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Hager said that she finds it “sort of embarrassing” when her “outdoorsy” husband asks guests to surrender their footwear before entering their home. And then Hager made another revelation that encapsulates the issue.
“Do you want to know the truth? My grandma’s missing a toe on each foot,” she said of former first lady, Barbara Bush, 91. “When you think about that, it would be mean to [ask her to] take shoes off when she arrives for a dinner party.”
Embarrassment is exactly what the guest and person making the request should want to avoid, etiquette expert Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide, told Footwear News. Still, when it comes to “no shoes inside” households, ultimately, visitors have to play by the homeowner’s rulebook.
“You have to be as polite as possible and give guests reasons for the policy — especially in the U.S.” added Schweitzer, who advises and trains professionals in cross-cultural and international protocol through her Austin, Texas-based firm. “People are abrupt and direct and don’t take time to talk. Taking your shoes off is an intimate act, so people who ask that need to be polite.”
In some Eastern countries and other parts of the world today, the practice of taking off shoes before entering a residence is common for cultural, philosophical or health-related reasons, Schweitzer said. In Hawaii, where there’s a large Asian population, leaving shoes by the doorway is the norm; and in Alaska and other rural areas, it’s not unusual for some homes to have a mudroom — a foyer for removing shoes and other wares. But for some city dwellers in the U.S., the scenario could be awkward.
Here, Schweitzer offers her guidance on the dos and don’ts of “no shoes” household policies and other best practices to avoid footwear faux pas elsewhere in life.
Best practices for requesting that guests take off their shoes before entering:
• Inform guests in writing in advance on the invitation to avoid the surprise.
• When advising them beforehand, ask them to bring slippers or socks.
• Provide an area near the entrance where people may comfortably sit to remove shoes, and put on slippers without being eye-balled by other guests. “Nobody wants to bend over and have people look at them; It’s awkward to take off shoes with laces or lean against the wall — it can be really uncomfortable,” Schweitzer said.
• Be as polite as possible and give guests reasons for the policy.
• If you’re providing a guest with protection for their feet, it should be “clean and unused socks or slippers.”
• Be sure to clean floors before guests arrive.
• Thank them for compliance with your policy and their graciousness.
Is it okay to decline or find a way around removing shoes before entering a home?
“Yes, for medical conditions such as diabetes,” Schweitzer said. Otherwise it may be considered “impolite to decline due to discomfort.”
• Bring your own socks or slippers.
• Ask if you can stay within a confined area with shoes on.
• Ask for privacy to change into slippers and place shoes in secure area.
What if you’re concerned about the security of new or expensive shoes that are removed in someone’s home?
“Bring a bag to zip it into and put it in another room,” Schweitzer said. “If you know you’re going into a no-shoes home, don’t bring your best pair.”
How should you react when you receive a pair of shoes that you don’t like?
“Speak from the heart and appreciate the thoughtfulness — express it for the thought and kindness,” Schweitzer recommends. “It’s hard, but important. When we receive a gift, we have to prepare ourselves for disappointment.”
Is it okay to buy the same pair of shoes as your co-worker?
“That’s a fine line,” Schweitzer said. “I wouldn’t buy the same pair of shoes that my colleague at work has. If I see a pair of shoes and love her footwear, and she has it in black, I may buy a pair in red but not black — that wouldn’t be fair.”
What do you do if you borrow a pair of shoes from a friend and they aren’t returned in the same condition? Borrowing
“If someone borrows a pair of shoes and they return them, they are responsible to say something or say let me replace them — I stretched them out or whatever. It’s the borrower’s responsibility,” Schweitzer said. “If they don’t say something, the lender has every right to say they are stretched out or need resoling. Women being women tend to hesitate to say anything because they are afraid to ruin the relationship, so they swallow and let it simmer, but that’s going to be a problem. Talk about it and get it out in the open. Fix it right away.”