We’ve all been there: you arrive at the home of a friend, neighbor, coworker or acquaintance for a dinner party or holiday gathering and before you have a moment to hand over the gifts or wine, your host, with a beaming grimace, instructs you where to place your shoes.
Domestic no-shoes policies are undeniably rude and yet no one ever calls these people out. If your home is so sacred, and you require a living environment more sterile than a dentist’s office, why entertain at all?
This is not merely a wintertime courtesy. If the ground is slushy outside it is only polite to remove one’s shoes unasked in the home of another. That goes without question. But this isn’t about dirt, mud or someone’s paralyzing fear of a mop. No-shoes people are year-round troopers. Rain or shine, they’ve turned their homes into TSA security checkpoints and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Don’t be surprised if your friends with a domestic no-shoes policy feel extra emboldened in the pandemic world. No-shoes people are accustomed to having their policy go unquestioned. But this winter your host may cite some study she read claiming that COVID-19 tends to hover a few inches above the ground. It’s just one of the virus’s amusing foibles, such as infecting people only after 10 p.m. and being completely repelled by anyone wearing a Black Trans Lives Matter T-shirt.
Forget Andrew Cuomo, Dr Fauci or whichever tyrant TIME magazine declares Person of the Year, Karen is the real face of our times. The days of two insufferable busybodies having a row over a dog leash in Central Park seem quaint now. Karen leveled up during lockdown, and achieved her final form: a masked-up contagion czar skulking Facebook timelines and supermarket checkout lanes for the slightest suggestion of an exposed nostril.
Long before they realized they could police people’s faces, however, the germ Nazis had waged war on people’s shoes. Sure, shoes are filthy and carry untold numbers of pathogens, particularly if you live in a festering megacity like New York. But science says they are no less disgusting than your pillowcase, iPhone or laptop keyboard. And unlike those items, you hopefully aren’t touching your floor hundreds of times a day or resting your face on it for long stretches.
One 2008 University of Arizona study tracked 10 people wearing brand-new shoes for two weeks before their clodhoppers were sampled for bacteria. The outside of the shoes averaged 421,000 units of bacteria, compared with 2,887 on the inside. Fecal bacteria appeared on 96 percent of the shoes. Compare that with a 2016 study of pillowcases which found a week-old pillowcase crawling with an average of three million colony-forming units of bacteria per square inch. That’s 17,442 times more bacteria than what you’d find on your toilet seat, according to the researchers.
Fecal matter is everywhere, you can’t avoid it. It’s on your pillow and iPhone as well. So unless your host’s apartment is completely covered in Saran Wrap or zapped floor to ceiling with UV light every 30 minutes, this isn’t about health or germs. Like all Karenesque behaviors, it’s about a particular type of individual attempting to carve out a modicum of dominance in an otherwise preoccupied and unforgiving world.
It’s been shocking to discover in the past 10 months just how many sidewalk superintendents, yentas and buttinskies live among us and, indeed, have been there all along, stewing in our families and social circles.
Granted unadulterated sovereignty by media, world governments and corporations to discharge petty despotism remorselessly and at will, Karen 2.0 is not getting stuffed back into the bottle anytime soon. Don’t expect Karen to have canceled holiday gatherings this year, either. Public safety comes second to her need to boss others around. Like her closest biological relative, the buffalo gnat, Karen needs to feed on the warm-blooded and, when entertaining, that begins at the door.
Anti-shoe Karens will also audibly huff if someone dries their hands with the decorative towels. They will have sanitizing stations set up throughout the house and from the moment the first guest enters they have already started the clock on when the gaiety ends and it’s time for bed. But the shoe-removal is their real fetish. A Karen needs to inflict tiny, randomized doses of humiliation in order to be reassured that she still exists. What’s more humiliating than being a grown man forced to canoodle at a cocktail party in his socks?
It’s even worse for the womenfolk. By confiscating a woman’s shoes you’ve probably ruined someone’s highly coordinated and meticulously considered ensemble. You’ve also removed a powerful personal signifier and even damaged opportunities for courtship and new relationships among guests.
People use footwear to communicate everything from their salaries, political leanings, sexual preferences and background. One study from the University of Kansas found people were able to accurately predict a person’s job, income and some basic personality traits simply by looking at their shoes.
There is evidence that those with domestic no-shoes policies understand their behavior is rude and distressing, yet still cannot help themselves. An etiquette expert quoted on Martha Stewart’s website has even suggested hosts inform their guests ahead of time about their no-shoes policy, and even set up ‘changing stations’.
‘Something simple like “We have a no-shoes policy here at our house, so when you come over please bring your favorite slippers or comfy socks” works’, she suggested.
Such a notification may end up being more useful than the host intended. If you received such a note, perhaps let the quirky sock people have their evening. You can sit this one out.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2021 US edition.