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The Legality of Being Barefoot in Public: How I Deal With Stupid Laws

Posted by on Mar 22, 2012 | 15 Comments

I was mindlessly perusing Facebook this morning and I came across Christian’s post about Ohio’s law banning barefootedness in Federal buildings. I’m not going to go into the back story, so read his post to learn more.  Since he’s a prosecutor, I was curious about his legal interpretation of the decision.  I’m vaguely familiar with the Constitutionality of the decision based on my experiences as a government teacher, so his analysis wasn’t a surprise.

So our government can create dumb laws.  That shouldn’t be a surprise.  How should we deal with this?

Christian recommends some good stuff at the end of his post, including a link to Dr. Daniel Howell’s site and the Primalfoot AllianceThe Society for Barefoot Living is a great resource, too.  Generally speaking, the goal is to change laws and educate the public about the benefits of barefootedness.

Changing minds so our society accepts barefootedness is an important goal.  Personally, I’m not a fan of forcing people to accept barefootedness.  As much as I like to be antagonistic, it’s not an effective means of winning the hearts and minds of those that object.

Education isn’t always effective, either.  The problem is simple- you can’t forcefully educate people.  After working for more than a decade as a public high school teacher, trust me on this one.

My Solution

The trick is to personally persuade people.  Key people.  Decision-makers. Focus on what will be effective.

Here’s a common scenario:

You’re barefoot in a store.  A store employee confronts you about being barefoot.  Some may resort to arguing with the employee about their rights.  Others may willingly disregard the employee.  Some may try to educate the employee by explaining the benefits and/or lack of local health code regulations on barefootedness.  Others may demand to talk to a manager, then take one of these approaches with the boss.

None are effective.

From the perspective of the employee, all of these options escalate the situation.  They force the employee to dig in their heels (you know… because they’re wearing shoes and all…) which dose nothing to actually change the minds of the people that matter.

Here’s what I do:

Goal One: Create an ally.  First, I apologize for putting them in an uncomfortable situation where they had to confront a customer.  This acknowledges their feelings and lets them know you’re actually listening to their concerns.  This is important as we rarely feel as though other people are really listening to us.  This idea itself is powerful and immediately converts us from an opponent to a friend.

Goal Two: Give a dumb excuse why you’re barefoot.  I always say I broke a strap on my sandal, even in the winter.  If I don’t have sandals with me, I tell them I threw them away so my kids wouldn’t hit each other with them (even if I don’t have my children with me).  If I do have my sandals, I quickly flash them to the employee.  The strap isn’t really broken, but people will take our word on this based on goal one.  My little inside joke- I wear Chacos sandals, which are essentially bulletproof.  There’s no way a strap will break on these.  Yes, I’m easily amused.

Goal Three: Give a compliment while at the same time subtly drop slip in some education.  You’ve gotten the employee on your side with goal one, then played up their sympathies with goal two.  Now we’re going to plant a seed for future encounters.  Give them two compliments- one pertaining to the store, the other pertaining to them.  For the store compliment, I always go with the cleanliness of the store compared to a direct competitor in the area.  If I don’t know stores in the area, I use Walmart.  If I’m in a Walmart, I use K-Mart.  This subtle play suggests you prefer to shop here instead of their competitor.  Most employees could care less, but it works regardless.

As far as the personal compliment, this has to be very subtle.  Instead of saying “I like [insert thing you like here].”, I ask where they acquired something.  If they have an interesting article of clothing or jewelry, I ask about that.  If they have a tattoo or piercing, I ask where they got it done.  Do something to make it personal.  It reinforces goal one.

When giving these compliments, I also weave in some education.  I may tell them I recently read an article about being barefoot or why wearing shoes can be harmful.  If you’re even remotely familiar with barefootedness, you should have plenty of ammunition here.  The trick- don’t appear to be too much of an expert.  You’re just making conversation about a curious activity.  By now, you’ll have won them over and planted a seed for the future.

Goal Four: Seal the deal.  The goal here is to continue shopping barefoot.  Apologize again for putting them in an uncomfortable situation and tell them why you came in the store in the first place.  Ask them if they can do you a favor and get whatever you needed because you don’t want them to get in trouble for you being barefoot.  This wording forces one of three scenarios.

1. They don’t want to waste the time doing your shopping and allow you to pass to finish your shopping.  If you’re stopped again, you can simply pawn it off on the first employee.

2. They actually get the product. If they go along with it and get the product, always tell them it’s the wrong one.  The goal is to get them to let you wander through the store barefoot, which they will do if you waste too much of their time.

3. The offer to escort you to the product.  This is unlikely, but still effective.  If they offer, get the product(s) with them in tow.

All three scenarios serves a singular purpose- it sets a precedent. First, you can bring up this precedent any time you return to the store.  If it’s the same employee, you’ll have an ally.  You may have to create a new excuse, but they’ll readily go along with it.  Second, that employee will talk about the experience with their coworkers.  If you were friendly and smile a lot throughout the interaction, they’ll cast you in a positive light.  That will make all future interactions FAR easier.  Third, if the person was a manager and you’re stopped by a subordinate in the future, you can always play the “[Insert manager’s name] said it was okay.”  Odds are the manager will back you up since you would have developed a positive rapport in the initial interaction.


My method may be unorthodox, but it’s effective.  It plays on the psychology of the store employee and reframes a confrontational situation to a friendly interaction.  On a personal level, it will win over the businesses and other establishments you frequent.  On a collective level, enough people employing this method will create a much more barefoot-friendly world.  The precedent you set will allow others to follow in your footsteps.  😉

What do you think?  How would you fight the powers that be to increase the acceptance of barefootedness?


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  1. R Ebersold
    March 23, 2012

    I also prefer not to get into a confrontation, and to present myself as a common guy who happens to be barefoot, rather than ‘a barefoot freak’. Similar to the ‘foot training’ idea, I offer a reusable reason. “Actually Ive been doing alot of research with my orthopedist, and I have two options – either pay thousands of dollars for special shoes, inserts, a back brace, and physical therapy thats only partially covered by my insurance; or, walk barefoot as often as possible and do posture excercises at home. So here I am…” When they say ‘youre not allowed…’ I respond with something like this: “Well, I dont know about being ‘not allowed’, but I know many places have mislead impressions of it.”

  2. Erik
    March 23, 2012

    Great post. I like your neo-Taoist approach. We may feel like enacting a Three Stooges violent confrontation, but as Larry, Mo, and Curly can attested, it’s unproductive. Better to take a Kwai Chang Caine approach, or perhaps introduce a quasi non sequitur to confuse them. “You’ve got no shoes” “Yes, where can I can get some Dr. Scholls inserts?”

    In St. Paul, MN and a nearby suburb, Roseville, with a big shopping area, nine times out of ten no-one says anything–but I’m middle-aged now and otherwise present a fairly normal appearance, so that probably helps too. I think my neighborhood’s mom and pop mini-mart actually likes having a local eccentric frequent their store. And when someone objects (this has happened just once since I returned Stateside almost two years ago), or in situation where I might make my wife (and increasingly, my rapidly socializing daughter) uncomfortable, I slip on some flip-flops, or lately, my Pah Tempes. So in a week I probably spend less than an hour (semi-)shod. No big deal. The funniest thing was a week ago at the local playground where a mother looked disconcerted at seeing my and my son’s bare feet in the cool March swing set sand. And then her son imitated us.

  3. Matt M
    March 22, 2012

    Jason, this reminds me a lot of the PR my training comrades and I did for Parkour, although instead of getting hassled by business owners and employees, it was the police. I actually created an educational flyer that I carried with me to give to anyone who inquired why I was climbing, jumping, and vaulting stuff, but I used an approach similar to your 4 points. I would have never thought that I’d be in that position again as a barefooter. I guess I’m just drawn to that weird stuff people do in public. 😛

  4. Daniel Howell
    March 22, 2012

    Although I have not generally followed your approach (at least not in every detail), I do think the willingness to first “obey” by putting on some flip flops is very effective at quickly diffusing a confrontation, which, as you stated, always ends as a loss for the barefooter. I think Dave’s approach is also effective. What has worked best for me personally is the notoriety from my book. Of course, this is not useful to anyone else, but it demonstrates that good press goes a long way. If you are serious about making your town barefoot-friendly, try hard to get some positive local press. A story in a local newspaper or magazine, for example, can be very beneficial.

  5. Dave
    March 22, 2012

    I have a couple methods I like to follow.

    First, if the business is a place I’m likely to frequent, then I’ll wear flip flops the first few time I enter. I’ll banter with the employees some, get to know them a little so they recognize me as a regular. Then I go in barefoot once to gauge the response. At this point we have established a repoire, so if they ask about my lack of shoes, I can jovially explain I’m training my feet for barefoot running and need to walk barefoot as often as possible. I then have the option to educate by explaining why I would want to run barefoot. Usually it never even comes up, as businesses, especially the mom and pop’s, value their regulars too much.

    Second approach I reserve for places where I likely wouldn’t go back if they asked me to leave. I’ll tell them I have shoes in a bag in the car, but I just came from the dog park and they smell horrible, however I’d be willing to go put them on if they insist. Based on the response, I’ll try to ask why bare feet are even an issue, then subtly educate from there. If they still insist I leave and return when I have clean shoes, I’ll just say thanks but I’d rather shop at a friendlier store, then politely hand them whatever I was planning to purchase, and walk out.

  6. Paleo Mike
    March 22, 2012

    Jason, you seriously wear Chacos? 🙂

    • Aaron (aka Alejandro 10 @ BRS)
      March 22, 2012

      +1 🙂

    • Jason
      March 22, 2012

      Yeah, the sandals that are essentially flip flops. They’re zero drop and easy to slip on and off.

  7. wiglafthegreat
    March 22, 2012

    My experience has been employees and managers often have no idea how to handle such situations well, but firmly believe it is against company policy or state law to be unshod. Other thing is, if it wasn’t actually that I didn’t have footwear at the time, then I’d just as soon wear something. Store parking lots are often filthier than I nice dirt trail.

    • The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
      March 22, 2012

      See my post about being barefoot in a private business. Doesn’t matter what their policy is or whether there are any laws on the subject. You are on the store’s property, and they have the right to treat you as they wish…for the most part.

      • wiglafthegreat
        March 22, 2012

        I’ve got no problem with that. What I mean by “firmly believe” is that, in a larger chain, they just don’t know how to handle it because nearly no one does it where I live, and if it is a rule, it’s probably lost in the pages of some handbook somewhere. It seems most believe that it is just plain illegal which isn’t true. I was at a large grocery store barefoot. An employee told me while directing me to the correct aisle, “you should wear shoes.” I said something to the effect, “but it’s so much fun not wearing shoes…like being on the beach!” Later, bags in hand, standing at the Red Box by the exit while a friend purchases a rental, a manager and support person walks up to me and tells me they require shoes in their store. I told him I’d remember that and I was just on my way out. He and his sidekick immediately turned around and walked away. I guess my barefeet made him extremely uncomfortable. Maybe he had a foot fetish…

        • Jason
          March 22, 2012

          I’m not especially concerned about the legal status of being barefoot. I use my methodology regardless. Invoking the law is an antagonistic stance, which is not congruent with my methods. I prefer to disarm the enemy and turn them into an ally. 😉

      • Ahcuah
        March 22, 2012

        What about the Unruh Act in California? And NJ has something similar.

        • Jason
          March 22, 2012

          Like Christian mentioned in his post, I suspect a court isn’t going to include barefootedness as a protected activity under this law. This is why I’m a supporter of actually convincing the business to support my barefootedness instead of attempting to fight it.

  8. trissa
    March 22, 2012

    I do find engaging in a discourse as to why I am barefoot and the benefits, etc. leads to nothing. Your approach seems far more effective and I like the peaceful aspect as well. I don’t LIKE to engage in debates with folks who seemingly are misinformed. There’s no point. I’ve shared this, Jason. Thanks again for all the great work you do.

    Sidebar: I am a homeschool mom…so I relate on another level.