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How You Should Behave at the Beach

According to a mom, a lifeguard and Emily Post’s great-great grandson

When Emily Post’s family teaches children about etiquette, the expression they use is “a day at the beach.”

“We talk about a family having a picnic at the beach, and some kids are there playing a game of soccer,” explains Daniel Post Senning, Emily Post’s great-great grandson and torch bearer of the family business, who last spoke with me about whether chivalry can be anything other than chauvinism in 2017.

There’s no particular rule about manners at the beach, Senning’s mother teaches the kids—the key is being aware of people around you. It’s a public place and everyone has a right to use the beach as they wish, provided they’re not breaking the law. The family having a picnic doesn’t have any more rights than the kids playing soccer. For example, the kids are asked, how would you feel if you were in the middle of a game and someone sat down and started eating sandwiches right in front of the goal?

But what if you’re not a member of the first family of etiquette? How do everyday people define faux pas at the beach? Can you play music? Can you cuss? Can you cook? For answers to these questions and more, I asked BJ Fisher, Director of Health & Safety with the American Lifeguard Association, which has trained more than 250,000 lifeguards nationwide; Annie Black, a mother raising four children in an L.A. suburb that just so happens to bump up against a large beach; and, of course, Post Senning, whose business is to help you have the best-mannered day in the sun possible.

What do you think the number-one etiquette issue is on the beach during the summer?
Music. People play music too loud and it often leads to conflict. You can offend people far from your towel area.

Post Senning: It’s absolutely okay to play music at the beach. It’s a festive environment. Music is a part of life well-lived. But courtesy still rules — notice the people around you. Try not to impose your tastes on everyone else.

Black: Just play it softly and not treat it as your own private beach.

What’s the second most common beach etiquette issue?
Intoxication. Sun and alcohol don’t mix. People don’t realize the sun amplifies whatever intoxication you’re experiencing. A large percentage of drownings involve alcohol, whether it’s a boating accident or a swimmer. Same with diving in shallow water.

Regarding smoke, do unto others as you wish they’d do unto you. That doesn’t mean passing a joint around. We have jurisdictions now where if you smoke a cigarette on your property and the smoke goes over to the adjacent property, you can be fined by the police.

Post Senning: Observe the rules of the beach. No glass bottles. For smoke, you don’t want to impose. Think about that downwind effect. You don’t want to subject people to your vices, habits or pleasures. But if it’s allowed and legal, like music, it can be a part of a life well-lived.

Black: I can’t stand it if someone is smoking cigarettes near us on the beach. But I won’t say anything. The kids, however, will say, “That person’s smoking.” They know it’s bad for you.

At really crowded beaches, what’s the rule of thumb on towel real estate? Is there a certain amount of distance you should give your neighbor?
I allow at least 10 feet. If I can’t find 10 feet, I apologize to people that we’re so close.

Post Senning: I don’t think you have a right to a lot of privacy at a public beach. The consideration to make is this: What’s your immediate and direct impact on the people around you? Are you invading someone else’s space with sound or sand? The classic example is shaking out a towel upwind of someone. I can’t think of many things more obnoxious than that.

Black: Always get up and walk away from people to shake out your towel. I tell my kids that all the time.

Fisher: What do you hope others will give you in the way of space? That’s a good place to start. The bigger question is what to do with people who claim real estate on the beach but don’t come out until sunset. Regrettably, unless it’s posted by the jurisdiction of the beach, you really don’t have any say about it.

What about showing skin? Is there a point at which you’re not in good enough shape to take off your shirt?
Post Senning:
No, it’s not a beauty pageant. Everyone’s got the right to a little Vitamin D. I always tell people that if you’ve got that little discretionary voice going off in your head, it’s a good idea to listen to it and maybe defer to it. If I had terrible body odor, for example, I wouldn’t want someone else to be forced to smell me at the beach. If someone’s rashy and has a skin condition, they shouldn’t get in hot tubs or pools. Those are the things I’d consider more than someone’s unsightly flab.

Fisher: In general, no. That said, each jurisdiction in each state has different viewpoints on exposing skin. There are some beaches in America where women can go topless and others where they will be fined or arrested for indecency.

Black: I think you can be too overweight to take off your shirt. I don’t like looking at my mom at the beach, for example.

Is there behavior to observe with regard to surfers when you’re swimming in open water?
That’s two combinations that are dangerous. A lot of beaches restrict surfers to a designated area, and we recommend a designated area for swimmers. All surf boards should be leashed to avoid them being washed ashore and hitting another individual. Even surfers have etiquette issues among themselves: Don’t drop in on another surfer; the surfer closest to the peak has right-of-way; paddling surfers yields to surfer riding waves; and don’t ditch your board.

What about loud kids and crying babies? Is it okay to ever ask a mom to shut her kid up?
Post Senning:
In the same way I’d say turn down the stereo if it’s obviously bothering you, do your best to take responsibility for your children. That said, you can’t always quiet an irate toddler. But you can do your best. Come prepared with snacks. Know your kid’s nap times. Make a genuine effort to not ruin everyone else’s good time.

Black: Loud kids are annoying. But there’s not much you can do about that. So definitely don’t say anything to the parents. It’s not gonna help; if anything, it’s gonna make things worse.

Fisher: It’s advisable if a parent isn’t watching their children to bring that to a lifeguard’s attention. Lifeguards are there to be sure parents are keeping their children in line, so it’s absolutely appropriate to bring a matter like this to them if it involves safety.

Let’s say your 3-year-old son has to pee, but you’re hundreds of yards away from a bathroom. Can you just take him to the edge of the ocean and let him pee?
No way! That’s not a good look. But it’s hilarious.

Post Senning: I say take him into the water. That’s reasonable middle ground in my opinion.

Fisher: That’s a no-go. In some jurisdictions, urinating in the water would be a punishable offense. The problem with the beach is you have a small areas in which everyone is entering the water. The pollution level can be extremely high because patrons are relieving themselves in the water. So it’s preferable to always go to the restroom. Next best thing would be a tree. Either way, keep it out of the water.

Public displays of affection?
Post Senning:
I love watching a young couple walking down the beach holding hands. I think it’s romantic. The moment it starts to give someone else discomfort, though, it’s too much. We don’t want to see your tongues or start to wonder what’s going to happen next…

Fisher: Is it indecent? That’s such a fine line these days. We feel it needs to be left up to law enforcement, and lifeguards shouldn’t be the ones making decisions on this.

Black: You just have to be tactful. Making out is okay I guess. Fondling isn’t.

Is there any etiquette about cooking food on the beach?
It varies by jurisdiction. Some outlaw fires of any kind. Others allow contained barbecue. The problem we have more relates to patrons who have a tendency to dig holes in the sand but not fill them back up when they leave. Someone can be jogging and injure themselves. Also, we have problems where people dig holes that are way too deep, and they actually cave in on the person. There are deaths every year related to hole digging because people want to dig the largest sandcastle ever.

What about umbrellas?
On the safety front, you cannot have any umbrellas in front of the lifeguard chair because that obstructs his or her line of sight. More largely, though, runaway umbrellas are a huge safety concern. You can now buy umbrella anchors. Some are like sandbags. Some you fill with water. Others you screw into the sand. Many people have been injured by someone sticking a stake-type umbrella into the ground; a small gust of wind comes by and brings it airborne like a javelin — literally a spear flying through the air. People have been killed.

Foul language at the beach?
Post Senning:
It’s a public place. There are kids around. Different houses have different standards. Even if you come from the school of piss and vinegar, you might be next to someone who feels differently than you. Taking the Lord’s name in vain is often most offensive to people. “Oh my God” might really be offensive to one person while another might consider it relatively benign.

Fisher: There are normally not rules prohibiting language at the beach. There are laws governing assault, which can be verbal, but that’s left up to the jurisdictions. In California, some lifeguards have more power and can do more than simply make a citizen’s arrest. We tell lifeguards the best way to tell if it’s indecency or inappropriate behavior is to always get the police involved and let them make the call.

Black: I’m not into it at all. Just yesterday we were at the beach and this girl was dropping f-bomb after f-bomb. The beach is G-rated territory.