Intentional hanging out: how to learn from people like an anthropologist

Me with amagwenyaI’ve been back in the United States for over two weeks now, and South Africa is starting to feel like a million miles away (as opposed to just the 8,762 miles it is).

Fortunately I have Facebook and WhatsApp to keep in touch with lots of people. But more than just remembering people, I want to remember the lifestyle of doing fieldwork.

Doing field work was one of my favorite phases of life. I didn’t get paid for it. No one was there checking that I left the house. There were no hard rules. You just put yourself around people in a way that you all learn something.

Field work is “intentional hanging out.”

As Kirin Narayan, a former University of Wisconsin anthropology professor, wrote, “All of life is worth honoring with attention, not just what’s been designated as a Project.” Anthropologists who do field work learn a set of skills that can—and I believe should—carry over into the rest of life.

Here’s some of the “intentional hanging out” skills I’m trying to keep going in Wisconsin and wherever else I land. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to use them.



  1. Have questions ready. I hate leaving a dinner or coffee date with the feeling that we never really talked about what matters. Taking a few minutes before hanging out with someone—especially someone you don’t see often—to think about what you really want to ask, goes a long way. As anthropologist I kept a list of questions in my purse at all times–some for specific people, some just to start conversations. My husband syas Facebook helps on this. Read up on the dry news like how many kids they have and what’s their latest job. Then in person you can cut to the better questions, like what’s the best parenting advice they’re heard, or how are Scott Walker’s laws affecting their teaching job.
  1. Greet everyone properly. One of the first lessons South Africans taught me was you must greet people properly. That means hello and also how are you. In Zulu, the word used for hello literally means “I see you.” See people. That means when kids walk into a home, they don’t run and play. They say “Hello Uncle John” to the father of the house, and likely hug or shake hands with every adult and child. Try it the next time you stand next to someone in a store or elevator. Just recently (in America) I had a 10-minute conversation with a guy filling a soda machine about his near-death car accident, starting with “How are you?” Conversations are waiting to happen everywhere.
  1. Take time for strangers. Just before I left South Africa, I stopped my motorcycle at a city intersection. A young man asked me for change. I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, and I’d been wondering what it took for a young person to decide to take up a “career” of begging. I pulled over and stood talking with him for half an hour. He told me about his childhood and his dream of becoming a social worker. He hunched over in a gesture of respect and insisted on calling me madam in every sentence. Strangers are all around us, and every one has a story, and many of those stories can change entire paradigms we take for granted. Find those stories.
  1. Ask for introductions. As an anthropologist, you don’t (usually) hand out surveys to hundreds of people. Instead you go person by person, often from one person who trusts you introducing you to another person who begins to trust you. The question “Do you know anyone who…” has great potential. You could use it to enlarge your friend group (“Do you know anyone who would like to hang out with us on Friday?”), find a date (“…who is single and awesome?”), find a job (“…who uses a graphic designer?”), or learn something you’re curious about (“… raises pork humanely?”)


  1. Give introductory epithets. Everyone loves to feel understood. One great way to honor other people and help human beings connect is to introduce two people you know to each other using an epithet—a short description of something unique about them. It works like this: “Cindy, this is my friend Anika. Anika is one of the best bowlers I’ve ever met and knows all the strange laws about pharmaceutical drug testing. Cindy has rock climbed in Peru, has a degree in harp playing, and knows how to use a chain saw.” You may think you don’t know people this exciting, but trust me, you do. Notice the cool facts about people you know, and share them so others can dive into exciting conversations together.


  1. Celebrate surprises. In South Africa I kept a running list of “a day in the life of an anthropologist.” It included things like “hearing a folk tale about cannibalism” and “hearing about the man who firebombed his neighbors” and “eating meerkat” and “having a hip hop song written about me” and “trading a book for shoe repairs.” Everywhere we’ve lived, my husband and I have kept a list of “Amazing Days” on our refrigerator to write down and celebrate days like these.


  1. Remember humans are complicated. When it comes to research methods, anthropologists tend toward methods that start with less finalized hypotheses to test, and instead let theories emerge slowly. They allow for contradictions and exceptions, without having to fit every bit of evidence into some neat grand theory. In my fieldwork, I came into South Africa to understand conflicts between workers and their supervisors, and how these related to cultural differences and stereotypes. If I had come with a narrow little theory—that employers don’t understand workers’ home lives, or employees are all angry with their bosses, for example—I never would have proven anything. When you take time to hear people’s whole life stories, you will not find trite theories of how people “always” behave.



If we all grew an appreciation for the variation in human lives, we’d have better leaders, economists, and politicians (and less of those annoying cousins who pick fights over Thanksgiving dinner).

What have you found helps you learn about the people around you? How do you connect to strangers and new and old friends at a deeper level?


  1. Brittany Thurman

    #5. I’ve noticed this about you but never put it into words. I love that you do this, and it is so helpful when meeting new people!

  2. Melanie Hunt

    Our WMU association is beginning to put together a book study on your book. I am not a book reader at all and I have LOVED reading about your stay and ministry work. Thank You!!!

  3. christine

    Thanks for getting in touch, Melanie, and glad you enjoyed the book! All the best to you as now you get to figure out what it means for your own life. :)

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