OMG Kengät


I want to talk about shoes.  I was having a conversation with a friend today about shoe customs in different cultures, and I think it’s an interesting barometer for how a society shows respect.  I’ve embarrassed myself a few times so far by forgetting to take my shoes off when entering someone’s home. I did read about this custom before I got here, but I didn’t think it was going to be as big of a deal as it apparently is, especially in a modern city. And I didn’t think it would be this difficult for me to remember to do it. It is highly practical in a country where 90% of the weather involves precipitation and therefore mud and general wetness, and I have noticed that on the few days of sun wearing sandals, my feet end up filthy just from walking around the city. So, as in pretty much everything else, the Finns are very pragmatic about keeping their floors clean. But it still felt weird to me to take my shoes off in front of someone I had just met, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I think part of it has to do with some implicit observations I made while growing up in the States.

As a child, I noticed that there were two different kinds of situations that you found yourself in when you were company at someone else’s house. You were either familiar company–family, neighbours with kids the same age, and friends you felt comfortable around–or formal company, which was for people you didn’t know as well, didn’t feel as comfortable around, or who were a different (often higher) socio-economic status than you.  Being familiar company meant everybody had their shoes off and you were welcome to get yourself a drink or snack, use the restroom without asking, and sit anywhere you wanted. You were treated like family.  I remember my best friend when I was very young lived right next door, and I would go to her house to play, kicking my shoes off at the door, yelling a greeting to her parents and sprinting down to her basement to play dress-up and dollhouses. But there were other people’s houses that I would be invited to, and I would sit only when invited at the kitchen table or the living room couch, or if I needed some water I would have to ask and the host would get it for me. In those houses, you left your shoes on. They were usually fancier houses than mine, sterile, with lots of white and expensive-looking things, and pets weren’t allowed on the couch. Sometimes children weren’t allowed on the couch, either.  In these houses, the hosts had their shoes on when they opened the door to greet me.

Sometimes familiar situations became formal, like when lots of extended family would get together for holiday dinners. Just as we would dress up a little for the occasion, we would also keep our shoes on. I remember being a child and being exasperated that I had to put some shoes on when the relatives started to arrive, because it looked nicer.

So I think I’ve internalized an association between having your shoes on and being in a more formal setting, or the idea that your outfit isn’t complete enough for a formal dinner without shoes. I also think there’s a short of familiarity-dependent ick factor, in that it makes sense that showing your bare feet or socks is rather intimate and also sort of rude, especially if you barely know someone. An American wouldn’t strip down to their underwear in front of a stranger or even an acquaintance, so why would we allow them to see our feet?  No one wants to see your feet; feet are gross and dirty, and socks are often stained and full of holes, and can smell bad.

However, I suspect this thought might never have occurred to the Finns, who regularly expose themselves entirely to perfect strangers in sauna. Without that discomfort, it makes sense that the custom is entirely about cleanliness. And I have noticed in other situations that Finns seem very concerned with hygiene in general. Not that I think Americans or the English are necessarily generally bad about hygiene. But it’s little things, like washing both before and after sauna, and being told to take my shoes off before using someone’s bathroom, even though it was right in the entryway of the apartment. Even their outhouses are high-tech (or…low-tech? Organic?) and clean; we used one at the cabin that had a bucket of pungent wood chips next to it that you were supposed to toss a handful in after you were done. I usually hold my breath in outhouses; in this one I lingered and breathed freely. It smelled like cedar.

Back to the idea of shoes, I’m making a mental note to ask a Finn what they do at pool showers.  My experience of sauna so far was barefoot and I have to think that is the norm, considering how sacred sauna is, so I wonder if they also go barefoot at public pools or gyms?  I think most Americans I know, at least the older or more conservative ones, have a paralyzing fear of their bare feet touching a surface that someone else’s bare feet have also touched. That’s how you get foot fungus, after all!  But maybe it’s just a difference in where the lack of hygiene is seen to be coming from. In Finland, a person is clean but the outside environment–rain, wind, snow, sweat, clothes, shoes–these things bring dirt into your life. Whereas I think the American view is that it’s polite to shield others from your own body, even at the expense of their kitchen floors.

I think this explains a lot about the American psyche, as it were; we’re so terrified of our own and each other’s bodies that we try to suppress them whenever possible–we don’t like to touch or see other people, and we have endless arguments and obsessions over weight, dieting, and beauty. We insist on perfection and seem simultaneously fascinated and disgusted by ourselves. We gravitate towards the artificial and make up arbitrary rules for fashion and beauty. In Finland, a 60 year old woman can wear a red miniskirt in public, and its not a big deal. You can sun yourself in a public park in just a bikini or a bra, and you can go to sauna with complete strangers, and no one cares about your jenkkakahvat or your cellulite.  I think Americans have historically taken extreme perspectives on beauty, in that it’s either this perfected outer shell that’s important, or its what’s inside that counts and we should ignore the outside. But I like this happy medium of natural beauty, which is simply the idea of health and respect, for yourself and for others, inside and out.

Yes, they are plaid inside. Of course.
Yes, they are plaid inside. Of course.

Shoes, again.  I did some research (read: I Googled “why do Finns take off their shoes” and “why do Americans leave their shoes on“) and found two rather interesting pieces of bad journalism.  Apparently I’m not the only one who has wondered about this.  Now that I’m thinking about it, it does seem kind of backwards that Americans show respect or high status by leaving their shoes on in someone’s (or their own) home, especially when you realize that they’re tracking dirt and germs in with them.  It reminds me a little of the connection between skin tone and perception of beauty in Asia and in the States; in Asia, it’s considered beautiful to have pale skin, because it means you can spend your time inside instead of out in the sun working.  In the States, we’re at a different stage of society in which being pale means you have to spend all your time inside working, and have no spare time or money to sun yourself on holiday.   These opposing customs arise because of social norms; it’s supply and demand of social psychology.  When something is scarce, it’s desirable, even if it means smearing shoe dirt all over someone’s carpet.

This last bit isn’t about shoes.  At least, not really.  This evening I was walking back from the lab and decided to walk along the bay, even though it’s much faster to go directly up Hameentie.  There’s a bend in the bay around an apartment complex with a path and some benches, so I stopped and looked out to the east.  The sun was reflecting off of the metal roofs of ochre Soviet-era buildings in the distance, and I could see that the moon was half full and rising already.  Yellow and brown leaves crunched under my feet, and the breeze brought the sharp bonfire scent of a wood-burning sauna through the air.  Some Finnish men wearing speedos jumped into the bay outside the sauna; old men fished off the pier, and women were walking dogs.  Fluffy golden clouds floated over the bay.  There’s something peculiar about the clouds here: it’s like they come with their own polarizing lens.  They’re bright and crisp and huge, and in the evening they turn the most brilliant shades of gold, tangerine, rose, scarlet, and then lavender and blue as the sun finally sets.

I thought, maybe this is a good metaphor for me.  Being here, working with brilliant colleagues, meeting people from all over, making friends, discovering the world–it’s a humbling and wonderful experience, and I think you get more out of it if you’re open and willing to learn, willing to make mistakes.  Being here feels like a gift, and for that, I’m more than willing to check my shoes at the door.


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