Stench Warfare: When Is It Okay to Take Off Your Shoes?

Shortly after takeoff, on a seven-hour flight from Zurich to D.C., the passenger to my left removed his shoes. He sat in an aisle seat, reading his book, unconcerned by the stale scent of his gold-toe socks. For those of us near his seat (and his feet), escape was impossible. The plane was packed. The air circulation was poor. No heroic flight attendant opened a window, sudden decompression be damned. No brave air marshal whipped out his badge, or his pistol, or a can of Dr. Scholl’s.

Unpleasant as it was, this foot faux pas was not an isolated incident. Over the past few months, I’ve seen people slip off their shoes on a train, in a waiting room, in an office, at a hair salon, in a library, even in a restaurant — as though every public place is now our own personal living room for wiggling our toxic toes.

In an increasingly casual society, it’s possible that we’ve all become a bit too comfortable in public.

How did this happen? When did public shoe removal become socially acceptable? It’s not like the rules of foot physics suddenly changed, or that shoe scientists developed eau de toe-lette for feet. What has changed is our desire for constant comfort. We now believe we’re entitled to certain modern inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of sock feet. But in an increasingly casual society, where sweatpants are acceptable attire for every occasion except job interviews and funerals, it’s possible that we’ve all become a bit too comfortable in public. The problem isn’t limited to the selfish passenger who removes his Rockports during a crowded flight. It’s the folks who hog two seats on a subway train when others are standing (and who huff with annoyance when someone asks to sit). Or the inconsiderate talkers who bellow like wrestling announcers into their phones in a quiet place. Or — ugh — the people who believe public spaces are suitable spots for plucking, shaving, or clipping various sharp and stubbly portions of their bodies.

With each public pluck, and each discarded shoe, our thoughtless individualism surpasses our respect for others. And yet one thing hasn’t changed: We’re still self-righteously annoyed by other people’s annoying behavior (because our own annoying behavior isn’t nearly as annoying as someone else’s annoying behavior, right?).

Back to that passenger who removed his shoes on my seven-hour flight: Sitting behind him was a loud child playing a video game. The shoeless man repeatedly turned his head to frown at the child’s mom, trying to convey his displeasure. But the mom was wearing headphones, nibbling on pretzels, watching a movie. Like so many of us, including the shoeless, clueless, sock-footed passenger, she was locked in her own reality — unaware, unconcerned, and, yes, unwilling to put herself in the other person’s shoes.

—Ken Budd

*“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”

This article is featured in the January/February 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.