The German-British sociologist Norbert Elias, after retiring from the University of Leicester in 1962, spent the rest of the decade travelling round Europe. In the late spring of 1965, while ambling round a small fishing village in Torremolinos, he heard a woman shouting after him. ‘Then a little girl approached me laughing,’ he later wrote, ‘but hid her head, and was running back to her mother … Finally I understood through an older girl; she pointed to my shoes, where the left shoe-laces were untied and trailing.’ As Elias thanked her and did up his laces, he noticed that people around him were nodding and murmuring approvingly, as if he had corrected something about his appearance that was disturbing to the social order. He felt that by retying his laces he was being welcomed back into the community of respectable human beings.
One of the little experiments he undertook to amuse himself over the next year or so was to go round various European cities leaving his shoelaces untied. Harold Garfinkel, in his Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967), called this a ‘breaching experiment’. This is an ethnographic exercise which examines people’s reactions to the breaking of social norms that we normally take for granted. The irritation and/or embarrassment this often causes can tell us much about hidden cultural assumptions and values. ‘I cannot help it: I am fascinated by the people, their differences, their behaviour, their way of life,’ Elias wrote.
He published his research results in a brief article in Die Zeit in November 1967, titled ‘The story of the shoelaces’. It came to light only quite recently when publicised by Ingo Mörth, a professor at the Johannes Kepler Universität in Linz, Austria, in the June 2007 issue of Figurations: The Newsletter of the Norbert Elias Foundation. In England, Elias found, ‘mostly elderly gentlemen reacted by communicating with me on the danger of stumbling and falling’. In Germany ‘older men only looked at me somewhat contemptuously, whereas women reacted directly and tried to “clean up” the obvious disorder, on the tram as well as elsewhere’. In Switzerland, Elias found that his untied laces sparked up many conversations, not just about the dangers of untied laces but the perils of eating grapes and travelling on trains as well. In France he got little reaction: no one cared about his or anyone else’s shoelaces.
As someone who is very bad at tying his laces, so that they come untied easily, I can confirm Elias’s experimental results: leaving your shoelaces untied is a source of constant comment and advice from strangers. There is always a little part of me that feels I am being admonished personally, as I associate my poor tying of laces with some aspect of my personality, particularly my tendency to freeze up in conversation and trip over words as though they were shoelaces (although, oddly, I very rarely trip over my shoelaces).
Well into adulthood I did not know the approved method of tying laces, having been taught a special method off my brother when I was little, which in hindsight I would have to concede was flawed (the laces kept coming undone). I suppose I also (perhaps unfairly) associate excessive shoelace tying with passive aggression, as in John McEnroe’s old trick of tying his shoelaces during games rather than between games to put his opponents off. Well, health and safety be damned. I claim my right as a freeborn Englishman to leave my shoelaces untied occasionally. Let us set a thousand shoelaces free, trailing behind us like free spirits and endangering no one but ourselves.