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Stepping into the shoes on/shoes off debate

Shoes on or shoes off?
Shoes on or shoes off? 04:39

When it comes to the great shoes on/shoes off debate, "Ask Amy" advice columnist Amy Dickinson knows where she stands: Shoes on.

Dickinson, who grew up on a dairy farm, lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and is cognizant of what might be carried on the bottoms of her shoes: "Some dirt, grass, weeds, spores, maybe some manure."

Rocca asked, "And you're okay with all that going into your home?"

"Mo, my dog was just rolling in a dead animal. I'm good," she laughed. "I got together with some friends from high school last week and I was asking them, 'Shoes on, shoes off?' and they were all like, 'Oh, no, shoes on.' And that's when I decided people who live in the country, we wear shoes indoors."

Dickinson, who wrote a column on this very subject back in 2007, sees the debate as an issue of hospitality: "In my experience, every time I have been asked to remove my shoes, of course I've done so, but I always feel like the host is valuing their floors more than they're valuing their guest or other people's comfort."

But for Los Angeles-based writer Jeff Yang, asking guests to remove their shoes and wear slippers is precisely about hospitality. "I think what changing into slippers does is, it gives you a sense of informality and comfort and intimacy," he said.

Yang is something of a convert. Growing up on New York's Staten Island, he didn't always abide by house rules. "I was a little rebellious," he said. "I mean, that's the extent of the rebellion, right? Not, like, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It's like, 'I'm gonna wear my shoes in the house, Mom!' And that was part of the reason that my parents felt like a semester spent abroad would be a good thing for me to learn a little how things are supposed to be done."

So, at the age of 8, Yang was sent to stay with his aunt Chi-Mei in Taiwan, where shoes are not worn in the house. "I just sort of walked on in, thinking, 'Okay, I'm gonna give her a big hug.' But as I was walking in, she basically raised her hand and said, 'What do you think you're doing?' And I stopped. And she said, 'If you walk into my house with your shoes on, you're walking across my heart.'"

With those words, Yang's aunt instilled in him a deeper lesson: "When you take off your shoes, you are changing yourself from a stranger to a friend and family member, and as a result, are sort of transformed from outsiders to insiders."

For many in the "shoes off" camp, it's strictly about hygiene. Indiana University biogeochemist Gabriel Filippelli has been tracking what the "shoes on" people are tracking into their homes, including at least one dangerous contaminant: "I took samples of my dust and brought it into the lab," he said, "and it was, like, Oh, my God. It was super high for lead."

"And by taking your shoes off, you still might have some lead in the house, but significantly less?" asked Rocca.

"That's exactly right. And I've now done a post-measurement of my own human experiment. It's reduced by more than half. That's a lot."

If you weren't sure where he stands, Filippelli shared his findings in a 2022 Washington Post opinion piece entitled, "Wearing shoes in the house is gross."

Rocca asked, "Are you surprised at how contentious this is?"

"I was," Filippelli said. "I mean, it is a deeply ingrained, emotional subject, apparently."

"And why do you think it is?"

"I think it taps into something that we can have an argument about, that's not political or religious, that is robust, and it doesn't make someone feel terrible afterwards."

So, whether you're "shoes on" or "shoes off," consider this footnote from Jeff Yang: "People who wanna keep their shoes on could put on booties over their outer shoes, not a problem. As long as you see the other person, I think there's almost always a way to actually get around these differences."

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Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: Lauren Barnello. 

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