We wore slippers at home when I was a child in England, but it was definitely a comfort thing, like changing out of your school uniform or work clothes into something loose and comfortable. Wearing slippers or taking off your shoes in someone else’s home would have been very presumptuous, like helping yourself from the fridge and almost bordering on an insult.
When I first arrived in Canada it was mid-winter, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw plastic boot trays inside the door of every Canadian home. In fact I thought “What a great idea!” given the slushy and salty streets of Toronto. But as summer rolled around and the boot trays disappeared the habit of removing shoes did not and I quickly realized it was a huge faux-pas to keep your shoes on in a Canadian home. Walking around in stocking feet or barefoot was the accepted norm for visitors.
When we moved to Azerbaijan I found they also had the shoes by the door habit. But they took it to the next level and provided a selection of slippers for guests to wear. My cleaning lady looked at me in horror when she realized I didn’t have any for her to change into. Although we couldn’t communicate verbally I definitely got the message and quickly rushed off to the local bazaar to buy a supply of cheap cloth slippers in a variety of sizes. The students who came to me each week to practise their English had their favourite pairs and would even argue if someone took “theirs.”
In the UAE which was much more multicultural, many people didn’t even keep their shoes inside – they’d be relegated to the porch or hallway if it were an apartment building. And the steps of the mosques would be a jumble of hastily doffed footwear 5 times a day. How frequently did someone end up with the wrong pair, I wondered? Was it always a genuine mistake?
This weekend I saw an online discussion on the topic. It was interesting to see different nationalities line up on each side of the debate. Strangely both the shoes-off and shoes-on supporters argued that their custom was more clean and hygienic. Are bare, sweaty (and sometimes dirty, bleurgh) feet preferable to shoes worn in the street? Is it insulting to ask someone from a shoes-on society to remove their shoes in a shoes-off home? As someone who quickly adapted to the shoes-off rule, I was surprised at the strong resistance many had to it. Should you adopt local customs, or is it OK to keep your own when it comes to your personal living space? Is there a happy medium? I’m not sure I have an answer.