Etiquette Expert Reveals How Not to Embarrass Someone With No-Shoe House Rules — and More Good Footwear Manners

Jenna Bush Hager Kathie Lee Gifford
Jenna Bush Hager, left, and Kathie Lee Gifford on NBC's "Today" show.
Courtesy of NBC.

Last week on the “Today” show, correspondent Jenna Bush Hager and host Kathie Lee Gifford had a stirring discussion about the health and cleanliness benefits of removing shoes when 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.

Wellington bootsMuddy Wellington boots, photographed by a back door. REX Shutterstock.

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 the 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, visitors ultimately have to play by the homeowner’s rules.

“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 one’s 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 door 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 policies as well as other best practices to avoid footwear faux pas elsewhere in life.

Best practices when requesting that guests take off their shoes before entering:
• Inform guests in writing beforehand, on the invitation, to avoid the surprise.
• When advising them ahead of time, ask them to bring slippers or socks.
• Provide an area near the entrance where people can comfortably sit to remove shoes and put on slippers without being eyeballed 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 a pair of “clean and unused socks or slippers.”
• Be sure to clean floors before guests arrive.
• Thank them for complying with your policy and for 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.”
Some solutions:
• 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 them 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 recommended. “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 don’t return them in the same condition?
“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, they 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.”