Newsletter : Put Yourself in Their Shoes
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
Puma's special edition sports shoes were carefully designed in red, green, black and white to look like UAE national flag and were launched during the Emirates' 40th National Day celebrations. Within a short time, Puma was immediately bombarded with complaints and a few days after launching the shoes it was obliged to remove all the shoes from stores across the UAE.
What went so badly wrong for Puma, the world's third-largest sportswear brand? As Puma should have known, the shoe in Arab culture is considered dirty because it is on the ground and is associated with the foot, the lowest part of the body. The national flag is a sacred symbol for the UAE and to use its colors for footwear was culturally insensitive.
Puma apologized for this 'grave cultural misunderstanding' and emphasized that "the shoe was never intended to upset or offend our customers in the Middle East, but to give the people of the UAE a piece of locally-created design as a symbol of recognition of the National Day celebrations."
A friend of mine who has been teaching English in the UAE for several years told me: "big brands like Puma have to realize that you cannot have one idea for the whole world. Each area you operate in needs tailor-made solutions. Especially in the Middle East, where cultural sensitivities are key, you have to be very careful."
The cultural significance of the foot is fascinating - attitudes to feet and footwear vary enormously from country to country. When I lived in Sydney, Australia, for instance, I was struck by the number of young adults who walked around the city barefoot - something you would never see in Japan. In the West running around barefoot is romanticized as a sign of freedom; in much of Asia it is seen as a sign of poverty or dirtiness. In Thailand it is considered rude to show people the bottom of your feet, and in India it's important to avoid pointing your feet at people, or touching people or objects (particularly books) with your feet or shoes.
In Japan, of course, there is strict etiquette about the removal of shoes and slippers. When my neighbor was burgled in Japan his only question was: 'Did the thief take off his shoes in my house?' After living in Japan I am now unable to stop myself taking my shoes off when going into someone's house, even if they are wearing theirs. And I'm horrified at how often I see people in Hollywood films putting their shoe-clad feet up on the sofa or even the bed. Yet I know I have been guilty in the past of absent- mindedly walking around my friend's house in the toilet slippers. How much offence did I cause, I wonder?
To finish off this newsletter I'm including a few idioms that feature shoes: