Beach Chairs and Group Dynamics


They seemed courteous and friendly enough, our fellow vacationers at the Nassau Beach Melia Hotel. They held the door for the next person, and at breakfast they waited their turns to be seated. They smiled at appropriate times; they weren’t too noisy. A nice crowd. A little more than half were American; the rest were European.

So how can I explain the thing with the towels and the beach chairs?

Every morning, early, the hotel staff put up lounge chairs on the beach and around the swimming pools. Lots and lots of chairs. More it seemed to me than the hotel guests were ever going to use.

And early every morning a staff member opened the window on the towel shack and started checking out towels.

We soon found that by the time we finished breakfast, changed into our bathing suits, and grabbed our books and sunscreen, the lounge chairs would all be taken. Not by people, but by towels. By the towels of people who may want to come down to the beach sometime later in the day and wanted to be sure their group had chairs when they decided to use them.

As I said, the hotel guests seemed like a nice group of people. They were from various countries with a variety of customs. And there were more than enough lounge chairs for everyone to use.

So why did everyone ignore the common good and act instead in their own selfish interest?

Well, I’m no social scientist, but I suspect it has something to do with group dynamics. Or maybe with “perceived scarcity,” a phenomenon that retailers use to encourage you to hurry up and buy their products. You’ve heard it: “Hurry down. Available only as long as supplies last.”

My son-in-law, who’s a big reader and often skips breakfast, did save a few chairs for us on some days. But a time or two we found ourselves at the beach or swimming pool with no place to sit.

You guessed it. Eventually we had to fall in line. We had to succumb to the invisible command of group dynamics and, like everyone else, claim our beach chairs early and keep our towels on them all day long.

We were stubborn enough, though, to wait until the last day or two of our summer vacation.

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. That is an interesting thing to note, Nicki. It reminds me of the time when I lived in Singapore and Malaysia. We’d go to a busy foodcourt during lunchtime, and to reserve a free table some people would put a tissue packet on the table to ‘reserve’ that table as they went to get food. It was an unspoken rule that if we saw a tissue packet on table, we were not allowed to sit there.

    Maybe you could have put towels on the sand and sat on the sand. Or maybe sitting on the sand wasn’t comfortable for you and you preferred to sit in a chair – and that would probably be more comfortable for you if you wanted to read 🙂

    • My daughter often sat on a towel on the sand to read. She’d put her towel close to the water so she could watch her son build sand castles. Sometimes when I couldn’t find a chair, I’d just take a walk down the beach at the edge of the surf. I love feeling the waves wash over my feet.

      It’s interesting that you bring up the tissue packets on the food court tables. I think saving something for yourself is a common phenomenon the world over.

  2. Interestingly, I noticed the same thing while on vacation last September, Nicki. I’d go out on the balcony early in the morning and all of the chairs around the pool and set up on the beach had been claimed. It reminded me of what we called “dibs” when I was a kid.

    • You’re exactly right. It’s like calling “dibs.” A less common technique (one I’ve heard of but never seen) is licking some food in front of another child to keep it for yourself.

  3. This is fascinating, Nicki! Perceived scarcity is a great motivator! I’ve noticed this with movie tickets now. They go on sale well over a month before the movie comes out, then we’re constantly told that we need to hurry before the tickets run out.

    • There was a segment on NPR about selling tickets for movies, Broadway plays, concerts, sports events, etc. Because of ticket brokers and scalpers and all kinds of fancy arrangements, the pricing of entertainment tickets is the least efficient and most chaotic of that found in any other industry. Middle men make all the money, ordinary fans pay through the teeth, and the artists and their backers who take all the risk get a smaller slice of the pie.

      Authors also use something similar to the “perceived scarcity” tactic when they have a one-day sale or giveaway.

  4. I’ve encountered this too. There are always the “good” seats. They may face the sun the right way or be in partial shade but somehow everyone knew they were the “good” ones. However all the seats would be saved with later people taking the “less desirable” (seriously you are on a beach in a resort how can anything be less desirable?). Most annoying is the folks who came to the water at 4 p.m. Someone could have used those chairs all afternoon. I used to get so frustrated at the lack of courtesy and also succumbed to going down at 8 a.m. to save a lounge chair.

    • I hate to be forced into an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” situation. Even then, there are often ways around it. When my son-in-law saved chairs for us, he only saved four and the nine of us shared them. We didn’t all have to read or sunbathe at the same time. And we didn’t need a chair for ping pong or swimming or kayaking.

  5. We have the same dynamic going on in my neighborhood — orange cones are the towels, parking spaces on the street are the chairs. A nearby apartment complex expanded, but it doesn’t have enough parking spaces for all the renters. So the renters cross a 4 lane road with a median and park in front of some of the residents’ houses in my neighborhood. Since, like many Americans, these residents use their garages for storage, they then have no place to park (also, some have 4 cars or more). And the homeowners are really mad that “their” parking spaces in front of their houses are being claimed by these interlopers (even though it’s perfectly legal for anyone to park there).

    So the residents have begun putting out cones to save “their” spaces when they leave.

    • Yes. Your orange cones are the towels.

      Another example around here is the Fourth of July. People put their folding chairs out before the parades to save a spot on “the best” corners. As these things go, they started putting them out earlier and earlier. Finally the police stepped in and set a time before which no chairs were allowed. Libertarians and anarchists and lots of ordinary people may not like being told what to do, but we bring it on ourselves.

  6. Grr…so frustrating and it looks rather sad with a line of empty sun chairs, just the towels resting on them. It is common practice in part of Europe too though I never did like it. Perhaps just a towel on the beach next time..? 😀😃 We did this in Florida to amused stares but it was just too much hassle to hike the cumbersome chairs down and back up to the apartment!

    • Sometimes you have to wonder who will save us from ourselves.

      I suppose the whole thing boils down to trust. If everyone trusted that the other hotel guests would take chairs only when they were using them or were about to use them, this whole dynamic wouldn’t get started.

  7. I might have commandeered a chair . . . reserved or not.

    I’d honor the reservation if people left their personal belongings on a chair, but hotel chair + hotel towel would mean it was up for grabs by “hotel guest” (me). 😀

  8. This happens in the beach I used to go all my life in Spain. People would go very early and put their umbrella and chair to save the spot, then go back home and arrive at the beach after 3 or 4 hours. That beach gets very, very crowded in the summer, but still I think it’s a stupid and selfish attitude.

    In your situation, I might have just taken one of the empty chairs and pretend I thought it was the hotel employees putting the towels on the chairs for the guests’ use!

    • You (and Nancy) are so sensible. As I said, everyone seemed nice. I can’t imagine anyone would start a fight if I took his chair.

      On the beach in Spain you’re talking about, if it’s so crowded, I can see the point of saving a spot. But this beach was never over-crowded. On the other hand, I probably have a different beach history than many of the guests. I grew up swimming in a lake. There were no umbrellas. We brought our own towels and then took them home with us. Then when we moved to the Philippines and later to Vanuatu, both countries had so many beaches that there was always more than enough room for everyone.

  9. I really hate this ‘scarcity mindset’ – it’s a killjoy – especially when you’re on the beach and trying to enjoy your holiday. I don’t get it. The hotel should enforce rules against such petty behavior. Sad that we need them.

  10. Ahhh, human nature, human dynamics. Humanity is the strangest force on this Earth. At the place we stay in Hawaii, there’s a big sign “NO CHAIR SAVING,” and a staff member checks the towels/chairs. If a lounge chair is absent a human being in a half hour, the towels are taken away. It’s like we’re all kindergarteners, and need to be supervised. 🙂

    • It’s so interesting to hear what they do at the place you stay in Hawaii. People in large groups are like another organism that can’t be explained by the ordinary rules of human behavior. You described it perfectly. We can become like kindergarteners in need of adult supervision.


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