Why do people in Oz not wear shoes?

Is there a shoe shortage in parts of Australia?  It’s one of the most commonly questions asked by tourists, international students and migrants in Australia when they first see perfectly normal looking people walking around the streets barefoot.  But they rarely get to ask these barefoot strangers directly, in case it sounds impolite.

And we aren’t talking about being at the beach or at the swimming pool, where it’s understandable and expected. No, it’s actually quite common in broad daylight to see  shoeless people  at shopping centres, Maccas, Woolies, and petrol stations.

This quirky habit leaves foreigners and hygiene freaks baffled.  Australia isn’t a poor country where people can’t afford shoes, and it doesn’t take much effort to put on at least a pair of thongs, right? So why does this happen, they ask? Well, we stopped to ask one of them.

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Local electrician Mitch Ryan is a self confessed avid barefooter, and he’s skilled at sprinting from shady spot to shady spot, or hopping on light coloured pavements during hot summer days.

“Purely comfort I think.” he explained.  “When you’re at home, what do you wear? Do you sleep in shoes? No, you wear barefeet, right? So why shouldn’t it be the same on the street?”

The two main concerns with walking barefoot in public are usually safety and hygiene.  What if you step on dog poo or glass for example?  Mitch is unfazed by such dangers. “I’ve definitely done both of these things.  If you don’t wear shoes, your feet get tougher. So you can’t walk over anything.”

“I’ll sacrifice for years of comfort for a tiny bit of dog poo on the foot. Wash it off, right?  I wash my feet everyday. How often do you wash your shoes? So what’s cleaner?”

He may have a point.  In reality, catching strange diseases from walking barefoot as reported in this recent news article is extremely rare, at least in Australia.  Due to the country’s small population and sunny weather, public places here are generally less dirty and damp compared to other places around the world. There’s even scientific research supporting the supposed health benefits of going shoeless, or “earthing”.

In the end, there’s no real right or wrong in any of this.  Australian people are often equally curious about various habits of other cultures, for example, the practice of Asian families leaving shoes outside their homes in racks, whereas many Australians tend to walk around in their homes with shoes on (another habit Asian migrants often find strange and unhygienic).

Different cultural norms develop over time, and it’s often eye opening to “step into the shoes” (or lack thereof in Mitch’s case) of someone living a different lifestyle to your own and find out why they do what they do.

Have you observed other quirky habits in Australia that you would like explained? Let us know in the contact page.

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