Finally, you arrive in Sweden.
Maybe you’re meeting someone—maybe an old friend. A friend who could be more than a friend. A lover.
You’re welcomed at the airport, and on the trip towards his or her home, you’re almost shaking. It could be the tiredness, the effects of the long flight, the rough-edged emotions that can’t be quieted at this particular moment.
You recognize these feelings. Excited. Nervous. Overjoyed. You’ve felt them before, but never like this.
Then you arrive, your friend helping you carry your bags up the stairs and over the threshold. You stumble through the door and into the living room, eager to see the pristine white walls and Ikea-dominated apartment you’ve heard so much about.
And then you hear your friend’s voice, but it sounds different—harsher than before.
Where the hell do you think you’re going with your shoes on?
No Shoes Indoors
Swedish people have pretty strong feelings about walking around indoors with your shoes on. In short: don’t do it.
If you really want to question this fundamental rule of behavior, be prepared for the looks you’ll get: bewilderment, horror, and—most of all—disgust. When I confirmed that yes, in the United States, we do wear shoes indoors, one of my friends gave me a look that inexplicably called to mind the image of healthy green plants withering and disintegrating away into brown crumbles of nothingness in hyperspeed. It was frightening.
Don’t believe me? There’s even a YouTube video heralding the benefits of taking off your shoes.
There are two kinds of people in the world: the shoeless and the shod
Starting with moi, a member of one of the shoe-wearing tribes. In the US, it’s totally normal to wear your shoes indoors. Weather permitting, of course—if it’s wet outside, obviously you’re going to take your shoes off. For the most part, however, you can wear your shoes just about anywhere you want: indoors, in people’s bedrooms, even in the bathrooms. I never really thought about it until I moved to Europe.
When I lived in Austria, I quickly learned that there was a totally different approach to indoor footgear. Everywhere you went, you were expected to take off your shoes and put on one of the many pairs of slippers (nearly always Ikea brand, incidentally) stored by the door. This was true even in my workplace—we all took off our shoes at the door and wore slippers for the rest of the day.
Austria’s a little strange, though. Despite the “no shoes indoors” rule, many workplaces still permit smoking indoors, which I still can’t believe. I concluded that the shoelessness situation was one of many things that were a little topsy-turvy in that part of the world.
Then I came to Sweden, where I discovered that Austria is not an anomaly at all. In fact, it is just one of the many shoeless nations in the world, a group that also includes the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Thailand, Korea, and Japan (as well as potentially the rest of East Asia and Eastern Europe, but I couldn’t confirm it).
On the other hand, the shoe-wearing nations seem to be made up of all the Anglo-speaking countries, plus, according to unverified sources, Mexico, Brazil, and presumably the rest of South America as well.
The shoeless and the shoed nations use basically the same reasoning to arrive at completely opposite conclusions.
The author of an article in the Daily Mail (UK) claims that it’s totally rude to ask people to remove their shoes at the door, as it will make them feel vulnerable (potentially exposing bunions and/or stinky feet) and ruin their outfit. She even quotes a podiatrist as saying, “It’s more hygienic to have [visitors] keep their shoes on, especially if they are not wearing socks or tights.” Plus, there’s always the chance that your host’s dog will make your favorite shoes into its newest chew toy… not a desired outcome.
To champion the other side, there’s an entire blog called “Shoes Off At The Door, Please,” whose entire reason for existence is promoting indoor shoelessness. For all I know, this blog is taught, line-by-line, to all Swedish children as soon as they come out of the womb, if not sooner.
The blog’s mission statement lists the dangers of shoed visitors as including but not limited to dirty carpets, scratched hardwood floors, the transfer of toxins to the interior of your house, an uptight environment, and unhealthy feet. (Visit the website to read “37 Reasons Why You Should Have a Shoes-Off Policy” in the sidebar on the right hand side of the page.)
I’ve been Swede-ified
More than anything, I’ve been pretty amused by being able to horrify the Swedes around me just by saying that I used to wear shoes indoors. What can I say… we Americans are living on the edge.
When it comes to the shoes on/shoes off issue, though, I can’t say that I have a strong opinion one way or another. For the most part, I’ve gotten used to Sweden’s shoeless ways, and taking off my shoes as soon as I enter someone’s house feels like second nature now.
A few weeks ago, I went to a holiday party thrown by the American Women’s Club of Malmö, and our hostess (American, naturally) invited us to wear our shoes inside. Finally! At long last! And yet, I realized as I went back to the hallway to put my boots back on, I was kind of freaked out.
Not because I was disgusted by the idea, but because I started to get really worried that I would get our hostess’ house dirty. I might even **GASP** scratch her hardwood floors. (People take their hardwood floors really seriously over here, and I am so not going to be the girl who destroys it all with one unlucky high heel.)
By the end of the party, though, I was over it again. Shoes on? Shoes off? Who cares.
So, welcome to Sweden. Relax, kick back, and pack your best socks.
The shoes are coming off.