Humiliation, a Cultural Learning Tool

I vowed never to be humiliated again. But I have been. Over and over. If you travel, it is bound to happen. I still hate it, but when viewed as a learning opportunity rather than merely a harsh reprimand it becomes a little better. A little better.

After visiting 125 counties, I would like to assume that I am a fairly cultured guy, but I keep learning that I have much to learn…

Case in point: the whole shoe thing.

Disclaimer: I am thoroughly American in my upbringing and cultural outlook. I like to keep my shoes on inside and I like to put my feet up, two enormous cultural faux paxs throughout much of the world. And I have had to learn the hard way – through humiliation – that most view shoe etiquette differently.

Imagine the scene. It’s 2011 and I am working for Star Alliance in Frankfurt. A group of us were jetting off to different places for the weekend and had met up for dinner and drinks in the Lufthansa Senator Lounge on a Friday evening. Around the table is a Jordanian, a Brit, a Korean, a Portuguese, three Germans, and me.

The conversation is good and we are laughing. We finish eating and all sit back in our seats, clutching our drinks. I decide to put my feet up on the table that now houses our dirty dishes. My shoes remain on and I am oblivious to the nasty stares I was probably receiving by those around me.

Suddenly a lounge staff member marches overs and sternly tell me – in English – to take my shoes off the table.

There is silence at the table. Everyone is starting me, probably thinking “stupid American has no manners.” I turn red.

I whisk my feet off the table and in trying to save face, I sternly tell the staff member, in German, to speak German next time. But there was no fooling him. I may be able to pass as a German or European, but my actions screamed American.

Later that year I was traveling with my brother in the very attractive Swiss First Class Lounge in Zurich when he put his feet up. Like dropping a frog in boiling water, I brushed his feet off the table and gave him a stern lecturing on the rudeness of his action, hoping that no one had noticed. While we were not with any work colleagues, I still wanted to spare my brother the embarrassment.

I still forget about shoe etiquette. Just recently I was in a small Russian hotel and walking down the hall with shoes on. There I ran into a matronly maid who placed her hand on forehead, began shaking her head, and chanted “Shoes, shoes, shoes!”. I should have known. You just do not wear shoes inside a Russian house, even if it is a hotel. The huge pile of shoes by the front door should have been a sufficient tell-tale sign.

My German wife also tell me to take my shoes off inside, but I hate doing that, even if I am wearing slip-ons. Is it just me or is there something about American culture that fosters an inherent desire to leave your shoes on? I don’t like walking around in socks (and God forbid bare feet) and no, I never stepped on a rusty nail as a child or anything like that. Foot fetish? That’s about as attractive that rusty nail.

Humiliation is not something I wish on anyone and in the Lufthansa Lounge on that fateful day in November 2011 I vowed never to be humiliated again. But I have been. Over and over. If you travel, it is bound to happen. I still hate it, but when viewed as a learning opportunity rather than merely a harsh reprimand it becomes a little better. A little better.

On my way out of the Russian hotel I walked by the maid again, now wearing slippers, and stopped and pointed to them and said sorry. She smiled and squeezed my cheek. I had learned something.


Matthew is an avid traveler who calls Los Angeles home. Each year he travels more than 200,000 miles by air and has visited more than 120 countries over the last decade. Working both in the aviation industry and as a travel consultant, Matthew has been featured in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, BBC, Fox News, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Al Jazeera, Toronto Star, and on NPR. Studying international relations, American government, and later obtaining a law degree, Matthew has a plethora of knowledge outside the travel industry that leads to a unique writing perspective. He has served in the United States Air Force, on Capitol Hill, and in the White House. His Live and Let's Fly blog at shares the latest news in the airline industry, commentary on frequent flyer programs and promotions, and detailed reports of his worldwide travel. His writings on offer more general musings on life from the eyes of a frequent traveler. He also founded, a highly-personalized consulting service that aids clients in the effective use of their credit card points and frequent flyer miles. Clients range from retirees seeking to carefully use their nest egg of points to multinational corporations entrusting Matthew with the direction and coordination of company travel. Matthew can be reached at
One Comment
  • Andy K
    1 November 2016 at 8:54 am
    Leave a Reply

    We enjoyed reading it. This one. Germans are quite odd in this regard — not only do you have to remove your outside shoes when entering a house, you are expected to have “Haus Schue” – basically slippers – to wear indoors. Socks or bare feet don’t cut it. As well, Germans do not put thier feet up on tables, but love “lounger” sofas and love putting their feet up there.

    For me, it all comes down to how easy it is to take shoes on and off. I prefer oxfords, and a well-fitting shoe that keeps you supported all day will simply not slip on and off easily.

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