Hanging out: It’s a loose social dynamic in which people spend unstructured time together with no set agenda. (Did you need a reminder? Has it been a minute?)
The shortage of idle hangs in our culture is what inspired Sheila Liming, an Edith Wharton scholar, writing professor, professional bagpipe player and devoted socializer, to write “Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time.” The book conceives of hanging out as a way to reclaim time as something other than a raw ingredient to be converted into productivity. Just as she does in her book, in a recent video interview from Vermont, Professor Liming made a philosophical argument for the chillest of human interactions.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
When did you start thinking about hanging out as a radical act?
Coming into my 30s and moving around the country forced me to make new friends again. I thought about how difficult it is to seize unstructured social time as an adult. We live in a hyperscheduled Google Calendar world, where we make appointments with each other to get any face time. So there’s a sense that if you hang out with someone, you’re stealing time away from their calendar. It adds pressure to perform, to make it good. But I think that that’s a really damaging way to go about seeing our interactions. That’s why so much of the book argues in favor of unstructured time with people: There’s a great freedom that comes from low expectations.
For the unchill among us, what do you suggest as a gateway into the art of the long, loose hang?
I love participating in a low-stakes project. My partner recently joined a bocce league. I love bocce. There is maybe no lower stakes game that exists in the world. You’re just hanging out in the park with people.
I work this Christmas tree sale every December that benefits this committee on temporary shelter here in Burlington. People buy Christmas trees, and we help them tie the trees to their car, but really, it’s 10 of us just drinking hot chocolate. Having something for us to do, to focus on together, makes the interaction a little bit smoother. We talk about politics and culture. I learn things from these people, and then I don’t see them again for another six months or a year.
You had this very particular experience, where a close friend of yours in North Dakota had a reality show made about her life. You had to “hang out” and perform your friendship on camera for the show. Was this the interaction that primarily changed your relationship to hanging out and its documentation?
In many ways that was the kernel: this feeling that the more that I got into playing her friend on television, the less I was actually being her friend anymore. Our relationship was fraying, but we had to maintain it for the sake of the plot. It was strange, because it was like we were being friends and hanging out for a hypothetical audience of people who existed somewhere else, but not for each other.
The book touches a bit on hanging at work. What are your thoughts on mandatory fun?
I went to mandatory fun yesterday! The provost made a specific gesture to invite me. She was like, “Oh, you wrote a book about hanging out, you’re going to love this.” I was like, “Oh, no, no.” I’m the poster child for hanging out, even under duress.
The concept of mandatory fun in the workplace is sometimes used simply as a means of assuaging management guilt about the way that work normally functions. It’s artificial, and it’s a situation where you’re not there to primarily have fun, you’re there to do a duty.
But you’re into hanging out, in a day-to-day way, on the job?
I think those kinds of casual interactions are part of what makes work meaningful. It’s part of what makes it bearable when it’s bad. It’s also what allows you to feel that your job is not just your job. You’re not responsible for solving every single problem by yourself.
How do you host a hang that doesn’t feel like social obligation with a cheese board?
Don’t overthink the aesthetics. I think the second that people see a party that’s really beautiful and charming, they assume they’re there to be photographed and not experienced. This adds a new level of pressure because now it becomes about Instagram and not about the people who are in the room with you. A little bit of mess can go a long way to make people comfortable.
So, Sheila, tell it to me straight: You lead a very full life outside of work: You garden, you play bagpipes, you volunteer, you read, you hang out. Is that what happens when you never join social media?
I have sometimes wondered that myself! If I had been on Facebook for the past 20 years, how many hours would I have spent putting into those activities? I’m very conscious of having had to set boundaries about my time. I would say that I’m pretty vigilant about making my priorities into priorities.
One of your arguments, essentially, is to be where you are. But when thinking about fostering relationships, it seems more intuitive to me to text a friend or sibling rather than chat with a stranger while waiting in line somewhere. How do you think about prioritizing not the relationship that has depth but the relationship that has only proximity?
I keep thinking about this concept with reference to democracy. Democracy hinges on our ability to care about each other, whether or not we actually know each other very well. Like, we have to have this feeling: I want you to have good infrastructure and good schools, even if I don’t benefit from them. This hypothetical care is very important for sustaining the workings of the society that we live in.
I live 2,000 miles away from my family, so I totally get prioritizing that. But if that means that we’re taking ourselves out of a contemporary situation and ignoring the people around us, what we’re also doing is sending the signal that those people don’t matter to us — that the person sitting next to us in a room might as well not exist — which I think is a somewhat dangerous message to broadcast in a democracy.