Eyes downcast in groundbreaking research

18:08, Oct 25 2013
van beynen
Martin van Beynen

People have been telling me I look downcast these days.

"Cheer up and look the world in the eye," they say.

I thank them for their concern. It would take too long to explain.

If I had the time I would tell them I have embarked on a PhD in a new field called podo-linguistics.

Simply put, and believe me this is a highly technical area, podo- linguistics is the study of what our footwear says about our personality.

Because feet are at the lower end of the body I need to spend my days looking down, hence the misleading impression.


I intend to complete New Zealand's first doctorate on the subject, so inspired am I by University of Brighton (England) senior lecturer Dr Christopher Morriss-Roberts, who teaches in the School of Health Professions.

Morriss-Roberts attracted worldwide attention this week for his groundbreaking finding that highly coloured sporting footwear sends the signal the wearer is masculine, cocky and highly skilled. Based on his vast sample group of eight gym bunnies, Morriss-Roberts also concluded more modest sportsmen wore black or neutral coloured sporting footwear to avoid attracting unwanted attention from aggressors and all-white sport shoes were considered ultra- macho and worn by direct and aggressive types.

Now a bright coloured pair of running shoes could simply indicate you just sacrificed a bit of cred because the shoes were on special or that you are, in fact, a pillock, but I want to assure you this is a highly credible field of study.

Soon recruitment agents will just look at your footwear to judge your suitability for the job. Bosses will determine your mood and alertness by the sort of shoes you have chosen to wear for the day.

For instance, as part of my study I have just interviewed a colleague who is wearing black Converse sneakers when normally she is a high heels, high wedge type of gal. She told me she was a bit hung over and couldn't be bothered with the usual palaver.

She also had to walk to work and wouldn't be seen dead in jeans and ordinary sneakers.

What do we deduct from this data? At first blush it would appear my colleague is a pragmatic, practical woman who is nonetheless not prepared to commit fashion sins for the sake of comfort and efficiency.

I'm not sure how this is useful but don't forget, with my limited research sample of one, I cannot claim anything near the expertise of my colleague Morriss-Roberts with his sample of eight.

Now I know what you are thinking. You are thinking my research is going to be typical of most PhDs. It will have no relevance or use in real life other than to confirm what we already know and to prolong the university career of someone who would otherwise be waiting on tables or cleaning cars.

How wrong you are.

A quick internet search shows a person trained in podo-linguistics can, for instance, detect the rank and status of people involved in youth/gang cultures.

A police officer trained in my field could tell instantly whether the gang member he was confronting was highly ranked and therefore a prospect for mediation or a young hothead with a reputation to make.

In football, Sir Alec Ferguson often criticised the choice of his and other players' footwear and reminded younger players that bright boots attracted unwanted attention from opponents.

Using insight provided by podo- linguistics, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen could give his players a selection of boots of various colours to choose and base his team on who selects what.

We all know a well-maintained pair of brogues suggests steadiness and status. A $2000 pair of Italian dress shoes with kidskin inners convey a man with style and, more importantly, money.

And those pointy, elongated loafers which were all the rage last year? They scream fashion victim and trend surfer. Further study, however, provides much more nuanced information.

Take someone wearing a top brand of shoes which are scuffed and neglected.

An uneducated person might conclude the wearer is a well-off person of refined taste who is unfortunately a bit untidy. A podo- linguist would consider a large range of scenarios.

The wearer might in fact be indigent and impoverished and have picked up the shoes from a second-hand store.

Or the person might be a professional who has a chaotic home life and therefore lacks the time to polish his or her shoes. Another possibility is the wearer is attracted to luxury goods but loses interest as soon as he has acquired the desired objects.

As you can see only a podo- linguist could make these sophisticated deductions. Only by these small and subtle steps is the wealth of human knowledge advanced.

The Press