If you live your life without shoes, as I do, it’s pretty inevitable that sooner or later someone somewhere is going to confront you in a public place and tell you you’re required to have on shoes in order to remain there.
‘Where are your shoes?’ is a common question
A confrontation could come in a number of different forms, anywhere from an initially friendly sounding “where are your shoes?” to a more strident “you need to have on shoes to be in here.”
Often, however, a “where are your shoes?” is not necessarily a confrontation, but simply a question out of curiosity. Obviously the vast majority of people always wear shoes or some form of footwear, so someone barefoot in a public place is very unusual.
Most people are simply curious as to why you’re barefoot
People seeing you are probably going to wonder why you’re barefoot – as if there has to be some special reason. You could get asked that question by some perfect stranger when out and about, but most people are too discreet to bring up the subject. It would be almost like asking someone, “Why are you in a wheelchair?”
More than likely, such a question would come from an employee or staff member at a business, doctor’s office, or similar public facility. If such a question is asked, the best course of action is to always assume it’s asked out of simple curiosity, and not as a prelude to insisting that “shoes are required.”
Being barefoot doesn’t require a detailed explanation or justification
It’s really none of anyone’s business why you’re not wearing shoes. Just as it’s none of anyone’s business why you’re not wearing a hat. But you don’t want to be rude, so, assuming such a question is out of friendly curiosity, the best response is just a friendly smile and a simple answer, such as, “I don’t wear shoes.”
You don’t need to elaborate or try to come up with justifications or excuses, as if it’s not really legitimate unless you have some kind of compelling explanation. Remember, you are doing nothing wrong – just something unusual.
I always liked the answer Caine, the character in the 1970s TV series Kung Fu, gave to such a question in one episode:
Railroad Investigator: “Do you always go barefoot?”
Railroad Investigator: “Why?”
Caine: “I do not like shoes.”
The barefoot/shoes dialog was in episode #49 (Prod #166261) “The Garments of Rage.” (Scroll about half way down on the site to see the dialog.)
A barefoot customer is often seen as an easy target by an employee who likes exercising power over someone with no power
The problem comes in when someone in authority in a store or other business goes beyond a simple question out of curiosity about your bare feet, and asserts that “shoes are required.”
Basically, you are likely to have a problem ONLY if these two conditions are met:
- There is an employee who has some authority in a store or other business, who is also hostile toward bare feet, and
- That person actually notices your feet.
Even if those conditions are met, you still may not be confronted unless you are seen as “easy target.” A barefooter who displays a less than confident demeanor is an easy target. A barefooter who is shabbily dressed or who has an unkempt appearance is an easy target. A barefooter who is alone is an easier target than one who is with one or more other people who are not barefoot.
If you are confronted and told that shoes are required, you have three basic options
If an employee in a store or other business approaches you and tells you they require customers to wear shoes, these are the only choices available to you:
- Put on shoes if you have any available somewhere close by, or
- Just walk out, and find another store that’s willing to take your money and treat you with respect, or
- Attempt to discuss the situation with the employee or store management, emphasizing that your bare feet are totally your own responsibility.
Option 1 is usually never a good decision in the long run because it reinforces the actions of the confronter and confirms that he or she did the right thing by forcing a customer to put on shoes without any protest or argument.
There are some rare circumstances, however, when just putting on shoes without argument is the best course of action. One good example of that is if you are directly told to put on shoes when boarding a commercial airline. In that situation, not doing so if told can cause you tremendous inconvenience or worse. A more detailed discussion of that is included in my article, “Traveling barefoot on airlines is usually not a problem.”
Option 2 is easy to do – and sometimes even the best option, depending on circumstances. In certain situations, you may not have the time or the inclination to try to argue with the confronter.
Option 3 is almost always the best way to handle that situation – and is what this article is all about – providing information and advice for having that discussion.
Every confrontational situation is different, so there’s no one best way to respond
A lot of this is simply psychological gamesmanship. The better you learn to play the game, the better you’ll be at winning the game.
First, let me say there is no magic bullet. I wish there were. There is no one particular way to responding that is always guaranteed to get the best results.
This article is not about how to handle every situation you may encounter, or a definitive guide to the most advantageous answer or response to what may be said to you in any given situation.
But I am going to touch on a few approaches or techniques that will more than likely put you at an advantage in handling confrontations should they arise when you are out and about.
A brief, simple response to ‘You need shoes’ may be all that’s needed
Over the years, I’ve tried many different approaches to a “you need shoes to be in here” statement from someone. One of them has been a “why would that be?” question, along with a look of incredulity on my face.
I think the thing about answering a “you need shoes” with a “why” question probably just gives them an opening to start listing various reasons why bare feet aren’t allowed.
Usually you can shoot down each of the reasons they are likely to come up with, one by one, but, human nature is such that most people don’t take it well when it’s pointed out how wrong they are. And rather than acquiesce, many will become more obstinate and belligerent. So it’s best to avoid that situation if at all possible.
So, more recently, my standard response to a “you need shoes” or similar demand has been, “I don’t wear shoes,” along with a big, friendly smile.
That does seem to disarm them, as it’s a response totally unexpected. If they still seem to have problems with that, I will usually follow up with something like, “I haven’t worn shoes in 17 years, and am sure not going to start now. Besides, I’m totally responsible for my feet, so you have nothing to worry about.”
And following that – or maybe instead of that – “I’ll be fine.”
That kind of response often works. You simply reassure them that you are totally responsible for your bare feet and they have nothing to be concerned about.
A business/information card about your barefooting can often make an impression and change their mind
Sometimes, to help reinforce your position, it’s helpful to have some sort of business card/information card available to hand them. There is something special about a professional looking business/information card that briefly explains why you are barefoot and how that choice will do the store or other business no harm.
I designed a special card for my own personal use many years ago, and it has actually made the difference several times over the years between my being forced to leave a business and being allowed to remain there barefoot. Anyone who wants to copy this card pictured or design something similar, feel free.
Always be prepared with knowledgeable responses ready for the most common reasons given for their ‘shoe requirement’
But what if all mentioned above doesn’t work, and they still insist that you must be wearing shoes to remain on the premises? Then you have to try to reason with the person by explaining the facts in as friendly and diplomatic a way as you can.
There are three main reasons most often claimed for denying entry or services to a barefoot person.
- “Shoes are required by the health department.“
- “It’s a liability issue; you might injure your foot and sue us.”
- “It’s our policy.”
Remember, this person probably wouldn’t even have said a word to you to begin with if they weren’t lacking a reasonably self-assured ego, resulting in a personality that compels them to exert their power and authority over others whenever the opportunity arises.
And that type of person often doesn’t take it well when it’s pointed out how wrong they are, as it causes them to lose face. And once that happens, you’re at a great disadvantage in further stating your case.
So the facts related to those three main reasons for requiring shoes, as discussed below, need to be presented in such a way that doesn’t directly say “you are wrong,” or “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
This one is pretty easy to debunk. State health departments (or agriculture departments, depending on the state) in all 50 states regulate and inspect businesses that sell or serve food. None of them have regulations that require customers to wear shoes or even address customers’ attire at all.
This fact can be easily proven by referring to copies of letters from the health or agriculture departments of all 50 states on file on the Society for Barefoot Living‘s website. Carrying a copy of the health department letter from your state agency is always a good idea, as often just showing the letter to someone who invokes the “health department” myth is all that is needed to get them to back off their objection to your feet.
It is highly unlikely that any business would ever be held liable for a customer’s injury as long as it was not due to gross negligence on the part of the store – in other words, being aware of an unsafe condition and doing nothing about it (not exercising duty of care).
The potential liability of any business is also mitigated by the various contributory or comparative negligence laws, which vary by state. These laws serve to reduce or even nullify any potential liability of a business where the injured party is at fault or even partially responsible. A barefooter entering a business would likely always be deemed to be assuming the risk and responsibility of any potential injuries by virtue of the fact that he or she made the free will decision to be barefoot in the store.
It is highly unlikely that any attorney would even accept such a case, with no chance of winning in court.
“It’s store policy” is always the fallback response when all the other excuses to require shoes have been discounted in a confrontation discussion. It’s a point that’s often hard to argue with, because you don’t really know for sure if the employee or manager is just making it up on the spot (which is often the case) or if there is truly some official written policy tucked away in some store management “policy and procedures” manual for employees.
My suggestion is that unless you already know for a fact that a store or chain of stores has NO official policy requiring shoes, do not demand to “see” the policy being claimed or engage in an argument about the existence of such a policy. Demanding to see a policy where none really exists is just an incentive for the business to create a real policy, since you made a big issue about it.
So, except in those cases where you know for sure there’s no real policy requiring shoes (such as with Walmart, for example), the best response to “policy” being invoked is to deflect and ignore that topic and immediately explain that there’s no way your bare feet will cause any harm in the store and that you are totally responsible for your choice to be barefoot.
There are a few things you should never say during a confrontation
Sometimes what not to say is more important than anything you do say when having a discussion after being confronted due to being barefoot in a store or other business. Each of the below things if said would not only make your current position much weaker, they would likely trigger worse problems for you and other barefooters in the future at that business.
- “Do you have a policy requiring shoes?”
- “Show me your policy.”
- “There’s no sign on your door saying ‘shoes required.'”
- “You should post a sign if bare feet aren’t welcome.”
- “I have some shoes in my car.”
- “I’ll wear shoes next time.”
Always ask to speak to the manager if it isn’t the manager who has confronted you
If you are talking to someone who is obviously not the main store manager, and the problem is not immediately resolved, don’t continue to waste your time with that person. Tell them you want to speak to the manager. The main store manager in such cases often has a different attitude and motivation, and often can resolve the problem in a favorable manner.
Sometimes a confrontation cannot be resolved on the spot
Of course, some situations where you are denied entry or services due to being barefoot simply cannot be resolved right then and there. In those cases, two outcomes are possible:
- The manager or employee continues to argue against your being in the facility while barefoot, but never directly tells you to leave the premises for refusing to comply.
- The manager or employee not only continues to argue against your being in the facility while barefoot, he or she tells you to leave the premises for refusing to comply.
Here’s an example of continuing to insist on shoes but never telling you to leave the premises
An example of the first situation has been a few encounters I’ve had at a local Home Depot.
The first time, back in 2007, I had just walked in with my wife, and as I passed the customer returns desk, I suddenly heard, “Sir, sir!”
I looked back while still walking. A woman employee said, “You have to have on shoes in here.”
Continuing to walk on, I said, “I’ll be all right.”
I heard her say something else, but by that time I was so far away I couldn’t understand her. I wasn’t sure if she’d be chasing after me or not, but she didn’t, and we shopped around for at least 30 minutes, including getting help from other employees, before checking out. Nothing else was said about my feet by anyone that day.
On other visits to that store in the years following, the manager himself has approached me and told me they required shoes in the store. Each time I’ve basically told him to not worry about it, that I was fine, and usually that was all that was said.
The last time I was there (several years ago), I had about $500 worth of paint in my cart when he confronted me. I told him I could just as easily have spent that kind of money at Lowe’s where they treat customers with respect and have no rude signs on the door.
My wife spoke up and said, “Yeah! They are nice to people there!”
He said, “It’s not a ‘rude’ sign.”
I said, “Sure it is. Telling customers what they can or cannot wear is nothing but rude and disrespectful. Most other stores don’t do that, and your competitor Lowe’s is a good example.”
He really didn’t know what else to say, so said something like, “Well, I’m just telling you, we won’t be responsible if you get hurt.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said as he walked away. I was pretty fed up with being hassled at that store almost every time I went in. We continued shopping without further incident.
Here’s an example of continuing to insist on shoes AND demanding you leave the premises
An good example of the second situation is probably the very worst confrontation I have ever had. This took place back in 2010 at a local Michaels craft store.
I had been barefoot in this particular store several times before with no problems. This time, while my wife was in another part of the store looking for something, I approached an employee to ask about a product I was looking for. She was very helpful and friendly, and showed me where it was.
Just as I finished talking to her, another employee approached, and said very rudely, “Sir, you have to have on shoes in here.”
I was a little taken aback, so asked her why.
She said, “We have broken glass all over the place here. You could cut your foot. If you don’t have any shoes, you’ll have to leave.”
I said, “Sounds like your floors aren’t very well maintained or kept clean. In any case, my feet are pretty tough, and that’s highly unlikely to happen even if there happened to be some broken glass in your floor that no one has cleaned up. I have some pictures with me showing me walking barefooted on broken glass without getting any cuts. I’ve done this many times. Would you like to see them? Besides, it’s my decision and my feet are my responsibility. In fact, I have a card that states in writing that I accept all responsibility for any potential risks of being barefoot.”
“It’s our store policy. You have to wear shoes in the store.”
“Look, I’ve been a customer at several Michaels stores many times, including this one and the one in [a nearby town], plus some in other states, and no one’s ever said a word to me about that before. Besides, I never wear shoes.”
She said nothing, just glared at me, then turned quickly and walked away in the direction of what appeared to be an office. I thought that was the end of it.
I finally picked the product I wanted, and just as I turned to go and find my wife, I suddenly noticed another employee had approached me from behind and was standing there waiting for me to turn around.
She said to me, “I’m sorry, but OSHA regulations require that you have on shoes in the store. Otherwise, you’ll have to leave.”
“OSHA regulations? I’m afraid you’re mistaken about that. OSHA regulations apply only to employees of a business, not customers. I actually have some documentation from OSHA confirming that. I’ll show you,” I said, as I retrieved a document from my belt pouch. I offered it to her to read, but she refused to take it.
“It’s our store policy as well as OSHA requirements that customers have to have on shoes in the store,” she insisted.
I said, “I told you, OSHA policies have nothing whatsoever to do with what customers wear or don’t wear. I can read this to you if you like.”
“Well, this is what I’ve been told, and it is our store policy. So, I’m asking you to leave the store.”
“I want to talk to the manager.”
“I am the manager.”
Glancing at her badge, I said, “It looks like to me you’re the assistant manager. I’d like to talk to the actual manager.”
“She isn’t here.”
“When will she be here?”
“Sir, you need to leave right now, or I’m going to call the police.”
I tried to look closely at her badge to get her name, but couldn’t see it very well as she kept turning away slightly in an apparent attempt to keep me from seeing her badge. I finally asked her what her name was, which she stated in an inaudible tone. Asking her again, I finally was able to hear her name.
During this very frustrating conversation, my wife came up with the products that she planned to purchase, and appeared aghast at what she was hearing and how I was being treated.
I said, “This is nothing but arbitrary discrimination based on attire.”
“It’s our store policy,” she said.
“No other Michaels stores have this so-called policy. I’ve always been treated in a friendly respectful way at other Michaels stores. Why does this one have to be different?”
The assistant manager – which by now had created quite a scene with several customers standing around looking – continued, “Sir, we have a sign on our door that states our policy about shoes being required. You need to leave now.”
I said, “There is no such sign on your door. Can you show me where you’re talking about on the door?”
“It’s on the door and it clearly states our policy.”
After placing our potential purchases down on the nearest shelf, my wife and I headed for the door with the assistant manager, the employee who’d first confronted me, and several others following us.
As we got almost to the door, I turned and again asked the assistant manager if she could come and show me the sign she was talking about.
She said, “For my own safety, I can’t come to the door.”
I said, “For your own safety? What are you talking about??”
As my wife and I walked out, I carefully looked at all the doors, both inside and out, and then stuck my head back in and said loudly, “There’s no sign.”
Note, that was not the end of that issue. I cover what I did next a little further down in this article.
Always take a stand and defend your choice to be barefoot when confronted
If you are confronted about your bare feet in a store or other business, even if it’s done so in a “nice” way, that never comes across as appropriate or respectful to a fellow human being – regardless of whatever “policy” they may or may not have.
And while you should always be friendly and courteous in your response, immediately acquiescing to their demands and/or not taking a stand and defending your choice to be shoeless will only make a bad situation worse in the long run.
As barefoot rights advocate Myranya Werlemann wrote in her essay “Confrontations about going barefoot” regarding immediately giving in to an employee’s “shoes required” demand:
This store employee has just learned how easy it is to confront a barefoot person…. Especially if the employee wasn’t sure about confronting anyone (many are younger people, who may not be so confrontational themselves, or he wasn’t sure about the store policy he was told about by the manager making sense, himself) he would be strongly reinforced in his feeling it’s alright to ask barefooters to wear shoes. The next time you or someone else enters the store, he will probably stop you sooner and be more confident about it.
Sometimes you may be forced to leave the store or other business if a reasonable discussion fails
If all else fails, and you are told in no uncertain terms to leave the facility (like in my situation with Michaels, described above), by all means leave. While being barefoot anywhere is completely legal, not leaving a store or other business when told by someone in authority – regardless of the reason – becomes trespassing. And that indeed is subject to arrest for non-compliance.
If forced to leave a store due to being barefoot, following up with higher management often brings favorable results
Being forced to leave a store due to being barefoot doesn’t have to be and should not be the end of it. Contacting whoever is above the employee that caused the problem – in person, by letter, email, or phone call – very often will bring favorable results, including an apology and reversal of the decision made.
I’ve found it’s best to start with the local store manager (if it wasn’t the store manager himself/herself that caused the problem). District managers are often especially understanding and helpful in favorably resolving such problems.
In the case of my issue with Michaels, described above, I contacted the district manager, who sent me a letter of apology, which included:
First of all I want to apologize on how the situation was handled in the store. I will be counseling my assistant manager on how to properly deal with a situation like this in the future. Safety is a major concern in any Michael’s store because of the nature of a lot of the product we sell. This does does not allow us to stop you from an enjoyable shopping experience.
After receiving the letter, I followed up with a phone call to him, in which he clarified that in the future I would always be welcome in the store barefoot.
What if they have a ‘shoes required’ sign on their door?
I’ve found that having a sign requiring shoes has little to no relationship to whether or not you’ll be confronted inside if you walk in barefoot. In fact, over the years I’ve had more confrontations in stores or businesses that did not have any dress code sign at all than in places that did have a sign.
I ignore such signs if I see them. I figure if I’m not welcome there barefoot, someone will probably tell me. Then I can deal with it then.
For more detailed discussion about anti-barefoot signs, see my article “‘No bare feet’ signs are similar to the racist signs of the past.”
Never ask in advance if it’s ‘OK’ be in the store barefoot
You might think “maybe I could just avoid all those confrontation issues by asking them ahead of time if it’s OK to come in barefoot.”
No, it doesn’t work like that. A wise rule-of-thumb for barefooters is to NEVER ask in advance if shoes are required in a place. Asking in advance will likely always result in a “NO,” a response that you otherwise might not have gotten had you just gone there barefoot without asking. Putting an owner or manager on the spot with such a direct question as to a barefoot “policy” is almost assuredly going to get you a “better safe than sorry” negative response.
The fact is that the majority of businesses do not prohibit bare feet. But very few owners/managers are going to publicly commit themselves by saying that bare feet are perfectly OK. That’s because many just aren’t all that sure, based on all the myths and misinformation floating around. Kind of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation I suppose.
The best way to find out – not so much their policy, but their attitude – is simply to walk in barefoot, as if you’re doing nothing wrong (because you aren’t). If they have a problem with it, let them tell you at that time – and then deal with it at that time.
You can read more information about that in my article “Never ask in advance if it’s ‘OK’ to be barefoot.”