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What is Surf Culture?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Surf culture is the complex and incredibly varied culture which is involved with the sport of surfing. In addition to creating a unique subculture, surfing also sparked major cultural trends, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, shaping mainstream culture with changes in language, attitude, and social norms. Many surfers share this collective cultural legacy, and some non-surfers mimic some aspects of surf culture because they find it interesting or admirable.

Surfing was developed by the Polynesians hundreds of years ago. Early explorers in the South Pacific were introduced to the sport, which was briefly repressed in the 1800s before rising to prominence in the early 1900s. By the 1950s, surf culture had began to reach the mainland of the United States, thanks to films which popularized it, and a collective surfing craze swept America.

There are many aspects to surf culture, and some of these aspects are clearly adopted from Polynesian culture. Surf culture tends to place a high value on fellowship, kindness, and cooperation, with surfers helping each other out when they can and working together towards common goals. Many people also associate surfers with a casual, laid back attitude, marked by casual language and clothing. Surfer style is heavily mimicked in some parts of the world, with several major corporations making a large profit from their surf-inspired lines which include sandals, casual jewelry, and shorts.

This unique culture also has its own musical traditions and linguistic trends. The speech of many surfers is riddled with surfing slang terms to describe everything from an attractive woman to the way the waves are breaking. Some surfers also ascribe to spiritual aspects of surfing, and surfers may hold their own prayer groups, funerals, or other expressions of spirituality in ways which are unique to surf culture. Most spiritual surfing gatherings take place on the beach or on the waves, and they end with a surfing session.

With the expansion of surfing as a popular sport, some of the ethics and traditions of surf culture have been shaken. In some regions of the world, for example, surfers are very territorial about prime spots, leading to a localism phenomenon which can be alienating or confusing for visitors or people who are new to the sport. Competitive surfing is sometimes also marked by a break from the traditional laid back, cooperative aspects of surf culture, although the percentage of surfers who surf competitively or for an income is relatively small.

Some surfers have been angered by the commercialism of surfing, thanks to large companies like Roxy and Quicksilver. Others believe that the popularization of surfing has introduced many new people to a sport they might not have otherwise explored, and they are happy to be able to share the pleasure of surfing with others.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By eddyjas — On Jun 12, 2012

He'enalu is the name of surfing described by Joseph Bank during the first voyage of James Cook in 1769 in the Hawaiian language.

By goldenmist — On Apr 30, 2011

In Western Australia, where I live, there definitely are regions that exist where surfers are very territorial. Surfers who are locals often don't have much patience for surfers who have driven in from the city for a couple days.

Sometimes the area in which the best waves are breaking can be secluded far out in the ocean and there might not be a lot of room for many surfers. This can lead to conflict but most people are pretty respectful. It is interesting though how the ethics and traditions of the culture carry down though generations though.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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