Why you should lose your shoes like a Swede

Should we all follow in the shoeless footsteps of Swedes and take our shoes off indoors, asks Gothenburg-based English teacher David Ashby.

Why you should lose your shoes like a Swede
Shoes off or on? Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

When I was at school in the UK in the mid-70s I had many problems with the uniform we had to wear. Mainly there was the tie problem – did you have a clip-on tie (which bullies could pull off and flush down the toilet), did you have an elasticated tie (which bullies could pull out and release, snapping it back so that it smacked your neck and then flew up and flipped your nose) or did you have a normal tie (which you could never do up yourself, so the bullies just pulled it loose and left it hanging as two sad spaghetti strips down your chest)? Then of course there was the “tucking” problem – was it cool to tuck your jumper/vest into your trousers/underpants or not?

But for me the most challenging thing to cope with was the shoes.

We had to wear black shiny shoes, that was the rule, the only choice you had was whether they were lace-ups or slip-ons. The cool kids normally had lace-ups, often Clarks shoes (Commandos? Wayfarers?) with a secret compartment in the heel where you could store Smarties and spit ball ammunition and that also had jungle track patterns on the sole. The uncool kids normally had slip-ons (which never came with screte compartments or jungle track patterns). I had slip-ons. I had real trouble mastering laces, ties, buttons, life in general, when I was younger. Most everything I had was elasticated or had press-studs. My wardrobe was actually very similar to Action Man's (GI Joe in the US), although maybe slightly less camouflaged.

I really, really wanted to have lace-up shoes. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to have somewhere to store my Tic-Tacs and my jacks. I wanted to leave jungle track patterns in the mud. Unfortunately my lack of coordination and spatial awareness meant that un-coolness was my lot.

So, every morning I slipped my feet into my shiny black slip-ons, and that is where they stayed slipped until I came home that evening, when I would slip out of them and slip into my BHS black and red checked slippers and watch 'Sinbad the Sailor' and 'Crossroads'. Now, while I and all my classmates were spending the day with our feet encased in leather or cheap plastic, it seems that over in Scandinavia children were flinging off their shoes and boots, spending their school days in day-slippers or socks and doing much much better in their studies than us. Free your feet, free your mind.

Mainly as a result of the proper wintery winters, in Scandinavia you cannot really wear your outdoor shoes inside, or else you drag in slushy snow and drip icy puddles everywhere, and this whole “taking your shoes off inside” thing carried over for the rest of the year too.

In Sweden you just don't wear your outdoor shoes inside – okay, maybe you do in a lot of workplaces, but not all of them, and certainly not in schools and homes and so on. And now a ten-year study at the University of Bournemouth has found that children who learn with no shoes on are much better behaved and get better grades than children with shoes on. There is also less bullying. Nobody really knows why – although they think it might be because children generally feel more relaxed and “at home” without their shoes on. The lead researcher, Professor Stephen Heppel, has a very interesting article on “shoeless learning” on his personal website. It seems that the Scandinavians really got it right with this one.

I wonder if there might be benefits at work. How would it be if we all took off our shoes when we got to work and spent the day in our socks or slippers or bare feet. Would we be more productive? Would our minds be sharper? Would we be nicer to each other? Would we not spend so much money on fancy shoes with secret compartments in the heel?

Perhaps tomorrow I will spend the day shoeless and wild, and see if the lights burn brighter.

David Ashby, from Brighton, moved to Gothenburg in 2002. He is a certified English as a Foreign Language teacher who today teaches business English in Stockholm. Read more about him here.