All over Asia custom dictates that people don’t wear shoes in the house. In some places, such as Japan and China, people wear exclusive indoor-use only slippers or flip-flops in the house, particularly during the winter. Other people simply leave their shoes at the door and go barefoot inside the house. There are many reasons for the custom, from comfort to a desire for quiet, but the most common reason is cleanliness. The streets are dirty and the shoes you wear outside track that dirt and other less than sanitary substances indoors. In today’s cosmopolitan world, many Westerners are perfectly aware of this custom; particularly in places with large Asian populations non-Asians often don’t even need to be asked to take their shoes off in the entryway of an Asian house.
But, of course, not everyone agrees with the custom. There seems to be no hard and fast rule about shoes in the house in the West. Some people forbid shoes inside for the reasons mentioned above; some people don’t allow shoes on the carpet but do allow them on hard wood floors; a few people don’t care either way; and some people are offended when guests take their shoes off in their homes or when they’re asked to take their shoes off in someone else’s house.
People’s attitudes about shoes and feet are complicated. For some people, shoes are an integral part of one’s dress, and being asked to take them off is akin to being asked to strip in the foyer. In a less extreme example in the same vein, some people find the request informalizing. There are those who find the idea of walking around barefoot itself disgusting – you never know what’s on the floor after all, and who wants all that whatever on their feet? For these people the idea of sticking their feet into a pair of slippers worn by countless other guests is particularly disgusting. Then there are the people who think of feet themselves as inherently dirty and don’t want people walking around barefoot in their houses with their icky feet. Finally there are those Westerners who have no particularly strong feelings either way, but find the request nonetheless annoying when it’s enforced too strictly – for instance if one is just running inside for two minutes to grab forgotten sunglasses. In short, if you never thought shoes and the wearing or not wearing thereof could be a source of culture clash, think again.
Wildly divergent opinions as to proper shoe etiquette aside, one thing does remain constant across Western and Asian cultures: in your host’s house, it’s polite to follow his customs. In China, refusing to take off one’s shoes would be extremely disrespectful and offensive, no matter what or how legitimate your reasons might be. So if you do find the idea of taking your shoes off and either walking around barefoot or wearing a pair of guest slippers unbearable, you might want to consider purchasing a pair of house slippers to take along when visiting Chinese friends’ houses. You might get an odd look or two, but at least you’ll be both comfortable and inoffensive.