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.