Never ask in advance if it’s ‘OK’ to be barefoot

Contacting a store or other business and asking in advance if they have a policy requiring shoes for customers is almost always a bad idea.                   

Barefooters will inevitably face discrimination against them by some business sooner or later

As most of us who have chosen to keep our feet in a natural and healthy condition by going barefoot have learned, occasionally an employee of a store, restaurant, or other business may approach you and rudely tell you they require their customers to wear shoes. Such confrontations from employees are usually based on misinformation, belief in common myths, ignorance, or just plain blind prejudice and bigotry toward fellow human beings who may look or dress differently from the norm.

A few businesses around the country may even have unwelcoming signs posted on their doors declaring “Shoes Required,” or “No Bare Feet,” or even that rather archaic sign from the early 1970s originally designed to keep hippies out, “No shirt, No shoes, No service.” A brief history of how those signs got started can be found on the Society for Barefoot Living’s website,  under “Barefoot FAQ.”

What’s the best way to handle such confrontations, should they occur? There are only three basic options:

        1. Attempt to discuss the situation with store management, emphasizing that your bare feet are totally your own responsibility.
        2. Just walk out, and find another store that’s willing to take your money and treat you with respect.
        3. Put on shoes if you have any available somewhere close by.

More detail on dealing with those situations will be the subject of a future article on this blog.

It is almost always counterproductive to ask a business in advance if being barefoot is ‘OK’

But wouldn’t it be great to somehow know in advance how you will be treated as a barefoot customer?

If you know for sure ahead of time no one’s going to say a word about your feet, then you will probably feel a little more relaxed about walking in, shopping, spending money, and enjoying the experience. If you know for sure ahead of time that you won’t be welcome barefoot, you could easily just decide not to waste your time by even going there. Or, if it’s a place or situation where you absolutely must be, you could decide to just wear shoes and avoid the hassle you know will happen if you’re barefoot.

Unfortunately, it just isn’t that simple in the real world.

Generally, most information you need to know about a store or its policies can be easily obtained with a simple phone call, email, or letter. For example:

Do they accept American Express credit cards? Just ask, and they’ll tell you.
Can you return an item you bought more than 30 days ago? Just ask, and they’ll tell you.
Can you bring your dog on a leash into the store? Just ask, and they’ll tell you.
What are their store hours? Just ask, and they’ll tell you.

But there is one question that should NEVER be asked of a store or other business:

“Is it OK if I come in barefoot?”

Neither that question nor any similar inquiry, such as,
“Do you have a shoe policy?”
“Do you require shoes for customers?”

Getting a straight or honest answer to such inquiries is highly unlikely.

The vast majority of businesses have no official ‘policy’ related to a customer being barefoot

The reason a straight or honest answer is unlikely relates to the fact that the vast majority of stores or businesses, whether large chains or small local stores or restaurants, actually have no policy on someone being barefoot in their facility. So it’s kind of useless and often counterproductive to ask a business what its policy is on shoe requirements.

Business spokespersons are usually afraid to ever officially ‘OK’ bare feet even when there’s no official ‘policy’

Since the majority of stores and other businesses in the U.S. have no official policy on wearing shoes, they also have no official prohibition of bare feet. But very few owners, managers, or other spokespersons are going to publicly commit themselves to saying that bare feet in their establishments are perfectly OK.

That’s because, based on all the myths and misinformation floating around about bare feet, many just aren’t all that sure of how they should respond to such a question. There is way too much paranoia in this country about liability and lawsuits – all unfounded. Very, very few, when asked, are going to give you some kind of blanket OK to go barefoot in the store or business. They are not going to “take any chances” of an injury lawsuit or some health code violation (which of course is bogus, as no health code requires customers to wear shoes).

I know there could be a rare exception to the answer you may get, depending on the store and other circumstances, but a straight out affirmative answer to being barefoot is extremely rare.

Bringing up the issue of having a ‘shoe policy’ may trigger a business to create one where there was never one before

Not only is a straight or honest answer unlikely, mentioning or making an issue of it may cause businesses to actually create a shoe/barefoot policy where they never had one before – because it never occurred to them that there was any need for one.

The majority of store owners or managers probably have never given any thought whatsoever to whether bare feet should be allowed or not. And the very few that have, have no doubt posted some form of a “shoes required” sign, which may or may not be enforced. But putting an owner or manager on the spot with such a direct question as to a specific barefoot policy is almost assuredly going to get a better-safe-than-sorry response of, “We don’t allow bare feet.”

Think about it. Anyone getting ready to start up a business, open a restaurant, or some other commercial endeavor has to plan and think of many things about getting the business off and running. The thought of, “We need to have a policy on whether or not we require customers to wear shoes or not” isn’t even on their radar. And normally, that’s just not an issue they will ever need to deal with – that is, unless someone brings it up later, such as someone asking about their “shoe policy.”

Most corporate headquarters have more important things to think about than some kind of ‘shoe policy’ for customers

As an example, I worked for many years in the corporate office of a company that owned a large chain of restaurants around the country. These restaurants, which operated under several names, ranged from very casual dining to more upscale fare. None of the restaurants displayed any dress code or other attire restriction signs.

In all the years I worked there and being privy to discussions and decisions made by the company executives, I never heard any mention by anyone of a “shoe policy” for their restaurants.

Employees answering customer service inquiries will usually say ‘shoes are required,’ even when there’s no official ‘policy’

If by chance some customer somewhere in the country had ever called the corporate office where I used to work and asked if shoes were required in one of the restaurants, I’m not really sure what answer would have been given. The truth was that shoes were definitely not required in any of the restaurants, but the person who answered the phone may not have known that for sure, since the issue had never come up before. It’s entirely possible they may have answered that “shoes are required” simply because it was the easiest and safest response.

Which also points to the fact that if you call or email the corporate office of a business chain, the person responding is likely to be only a low-paid customer service clerk who has little to no authority or knowledge to answer such a question as, “Do you have a shoe policy?”

Most shoe requirement rules are made up on the spot by self-appointed ‘shoe-police’ in a store or other business

Most “shoe rules” you are likely to hear about when out and about are made up in the heads of certain employees or managers on the spot, all depending on that one individual’s personal prejudices or false beliefs in laws, health regulations, or liability. Even those businesses with signs stating “No Bare Feet” rarely enforce such signs. A barefoot customer is such a rarity nowadays that most businesses never even think about such a situation or give it much priority.

Oftentimes, shoe requirements are knee-jerk reactions to certain incidents that have nothing to do with a bare feet issue

Sometimes, in the course of running the business, there might be some isolated incident that triggers some reaction, often irrational. An example is the case of a Bank of America branch in Anaheim, California a few years ago that put up a “Shirt and Shoes Required” sign.

Sign on a branch bank that was removed after 2 weeks, as it was against B of A corporate policy.
Sign temporarily posted on a Bank of America branch a few years ago until corporate headquarters had it removed.

Upon inquiry, I was told that it was because of a couple of particularly disruptive persons who had come in several times and caused a scene. They were always shirtless with visible swastika tattoos on their chests.

The bank’s logic was, “Maybe we can keep people like that out by ‘requiring shirts’ with a sign on the door. And since we’ll require shirts, we might as well add ‘shoes’ to that as well [not that we’ve ever had a problem with shoeless people].” That’s exactly how some of these “policies” against bare feet come about. No logic involved whatsoever.

I was able to get them to remove that sign after a few weeks after convincing them it did more harm than good.

The best way to find out if shoes are truly required in a place is to just walk in barefoot

Best way to find out if bare feet are 'OK' is just walk in barefoot. Never ask in advance.
Best way to find out if bare feet are ‘OK’ is just walk in barefoot.

So asking about a “shoe policy” is just not a good idea. 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.

There is an old adage, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Though not literally true, the expression means that ownership is easier to maintain if one has possession of something, or difficult to claim if one does not. And that is true. That can also apply to a barefooting situation. Once you walk barefoot into a place, you are in effect in “possession” of your position. Since you’re already there, inside, and barefoot, it’s much harder and less likely for anyone to say, “Put on shoes or get out” than it would have been for them to say, “Without shoes, don’t come in.”

I realize this is not a nice and neat well-packaged easy way to deal with these problems. It would be so nice if we all had a magical way to know or predict in advance EXACTLY when and where we’d have a barefooting hassle and EXACTLY when and where our no footwear choice would be totally accepted and respected. But unfortunately this is the world we live in – there are no absolutes that you can always depend on and no way to predict accurately how you’ll be treated in every situation when we are barefoot.

A more fundamental reason to never ask in advance is that being barefoot is perfectly legal everywhere and does no harm to anyone

There is another and much more fundamental reason that you should never ask in advance what the policy is or if it’s OK to go barefoot in a place. Being barefoot is not doing anything wrong or is harmful to anyone.

The choice to not wear shoes is no different in that respect from the choice to not wear a hat, not wear a watch, not get a tattoo, not dye your hair, not get a piercing, or not dress like every other person. None of these things cause harm, bother, or any inconvenience to any other person. Asking or feeling that you should ask someone’s permission to make the harmless personal choice of going barefoot is in effect sending the message that you think you may be doing something wrong, offensive, or harmful, and therefore need special approval from someone before you can do it.

It’s almost like putting barefooting in the same category as smoking cigarettes. “Is it OK if I smoke?” definitely would be an appropriate question to ask if you really want to smoke where other people are around. Smoking is indeed harmful, as well as annoying, to anyone who may be in close proximity. Not so with being barefoot. No permission is ever needed or appropriate to be barefoot.

You are responsible for your bare feet; no one else is

The thing is, who controls your life? You? Or do you have to wait for someone to tell you if they have some rule or not to affects what decisions you make or what you choose to wear or not wear? Just go barefoot wherever you want. If someone wants to impose some rule on you, whether their own whim or whether official company policy, let them. Then deal with the issue at that point. Don’t assume in advance, or worry in advance about some rule that may be non-existent.

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It is probably worth discussing the ancillary situation, where there is already an unfriendly sign about footwear and it would be in everyone’s best interest to remove it. Like your Bank of America situation. We sometimes find that if signs are present but not enforced, we can be relatively confident of not getting hassled long-term, but they still give the public the wrong prejudice-laced impression about barefooting. So in an appropriate context, it’s useful to initiate complaints about such signs and work toward getting them removed and proprietors educated. I seem to be having ongoing success with some highway rest-stops… Read more »

Robert Levine

Thanks for the insight and information, Hobbit. Miss you at the local Drum Circles. Great Blog here. Robert

Neil C

Well thought out article. I have in the past made that exact error of asking if bare feet are OK, and half the time the employee said fine and the other half of the time they said no. I have not made such a mistake in a very long time! The truly best way to deal with this issue is just go in the store, restaurant, office or wherever and hope that no one hassles you. I also walk into public places with complete confidence and state right out that I don’t wear shoes and assume responsibility for my bare… Read more »