Coined in 2009, the phrase “quiet quitting” means simply, go to work for your contracted hours, do what you’re asked to do, and nothing more. It has come into its own in the past few years, since lockdown, colliding with the Chinese movement tang ping (“lying flat”) to become a global phenomenon: go to work, sure, but don’t be striving the whole damn time.
Now, after many viral videos on TikTok, with young people discovering what trade unions have known for more than a century, it is spreading like wildfire. A Gallup poll found that nearly half the US workforce would describe themselves as “quiet quitters”.
I reject the concept, from a workplace perspective: it merely means doing what you’re contractually required to do. This I would call “work”. Anything more than this is “hustle”.
The love-your-work culture has become so dominant that “going above and beyond” is now often in the job description (recently abbreviated to “passionate”), which is ridiculous. If you said that in a relationship – “I want you to meet my stated needs, but also guess at other, potentially limitless, needs and meet those too” – you’d be called controlling and abusive, or at the very least, a bit of a handful.
But is there some wisdom in the idea of quiet quitting, applied to other parts of life?
Can you quiet quit your relationship?
Figure out what a marital work-to-rule would actually look like. Essentially, it would be redrawing the boundaries of your union to include more time for yourself and less absorption of your spouse’s emotional baggage. This could include reworking the map of the domestic terrain, but that would be unlikely to pose a threat to your relationship.
If, however, you suddenly want to go to the gym every night, or spend all weekend with your mates, having previously been spending that time together, the outcome is unlikely to be positive. Claire Seeber is a Gestalt therapist, “which is about looking at patterns that we get into, what we call ‘fixed gestalt’ – rigid patterns of behaviour”. She says: “If you spend all your time with your partner, and you suddenly realise it’s quite suffocating, you don’t just announce that.” Look into what has changed: is it you? Is it the relationship? “Are you talking about the end of the honeymoon period, or are you talking about 15 years of marriage and you’re bored?”
Always communicate your thinking, which sounds like the opposite of quiet quitting, but doesn’t have to be. If you suddenly change your behaviour without communication, that’s not quiet, that’s stealth. Saying “I would prefer to go to the cinema on my own than spend one more evening discussing your problematic parents” is too absolute to be interpreted any other way than uncaring. Don’t say “I need” when you mean “I want”.
Having said that, don’t be afraid of “I want”. “In therapy, I always come back to ‘What’s the risk if you do something, versus the risk if you don’t?’,” Seeber says. “If the cost of constantly subjugating your own desires is that you’re constantly pissed off, then that’s not a small cost.”
Can you quiet quit a friendship?
Friendship is a classic candidate, since you often don’t want an abrupt confrontation, you just want to dial it down. Instead of seeing each other once a fortnight, you’d be up for something more like a dental schedule: once every six months, infinitely postponable. You don’t want to ghost them, since that almost invites confrontation, but you’d like to radically reduce their expectations of you.
The problem is, it’s not really fair. What Annie Duke, author of Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away, says of the workplace – “you have to have the conversation about how your job isn’t aligning with your values, so that your employer can address that” – is also true of intimate relationships. “You have to be brave.” Try to do the kindest thing – this means communicating, not ghosting.
I write this after a coffee with someone who quiet-quit me 25 years ago. I don’t hold it against her, I was a jerk back then
I write this straight after a coffee with someone who quiet quit me 25 years ago. I’m not even kidding. I don’t hold it against her at all, I was a jerk back then, and now we’re fine. Or maybe we’re not, maybe it was just one coffee before she quiet quits me again. But bravery is better in absolute terms.
Can you quiet quit members of your family?
The beauty of familial relationships is also their curse: you didn’t choose them. So you won’t necessarily be as attuned to the needs of family members as you are to those of your friends, and you will find areas of radical difference – in values, in views, in dress sense – that just wouldn’t survive in the rufty-tufty world of people you associate with by choice.
At the same time, this makes these relationships extremely durable, and you can ebb and flow in the amount of emotional energy you’re willing to put in. Maybe you’ll sometimes land in quite a distant relationship, but find later on that the distance has made it more interesting, and now you want to quiet-reapply-for-the-job.
Of course, we all have the odd rogue relative we would genuinely prefer not to have in our life, and here the management method described by Duke applies: “When you get to the point that you’re thinking about quitting, you should have already quit. We tend to walk away too late. There are all sorts of pain points that come in about leaving things, that have to do with having wasted the time and energy that we put into them.”
For example, with horrible in-laws, all we can see at first is how difficult it would be to withdraw from the relationship – how much pressure it would put on your immediate family, how much emotional effort you’ve already wasted. Though if you get to the point where you think, “I’m quietly done with this person”, that has probably been true for some time, you just haven’t admitted it.
But – and Duke wouldn’t agree with me here, since, like Seeber, she believes in bravery – I think quiet quitting is better than loud quitting in this scenario. Because, realistically, you’re going to see them at funerals and whatnot, and you don’t want their last memory of you to be you shouting “I quit”.
Can you quiet quit parenting?
It’s probably when your kids are small that looking after them feels most like work, in the sense that it’s relentlessly hard physical, emotional and mental toil, and you can’t completely believe you’re doing all that without getting paid.
One parent often quiet quits every now and then: perhaps in a sibling fight they’ll enforce French rugby rules, which is to say, whoever’s fault it was last time, it’s the other one’s fault this time. Or perhaps they’ll dress up their own sloth as a bid to foster independence in the child, as in: “This three-year-old is old enough to get their own apple juice.”
In such a dynamic – and I cannot stress this enough – all that happens is that the other parent picks up the extra work. Duke says: “Quitting has to be an act that you do publicly. It would only be private if it doesn’t have an effect on anyone else around you. If they’re having to pick up the slack from your quiet quitting, they haven’t chosen that.”
However, time marches on and soon they are teenagers, and now it’s also like work, except you’re on constant performance review. This morning, I said something, and the 14-year-old said, “I wish this was a Zoom, because everything you say makes me want to hit ‘End meeting for all’”, and I said, “Huh, rude”, and the 13-year-old said, “Don’t just commentate, do something”, and I said, “What am I going to do? It’s not like I’m going to punch him in the face”, and the 13-year-old said, “You can’t think of a single act in between ‘nothing’ and ‘punching him in the face’?”, and the 14-year-old said, “She’s not a consequences person”. This was all before 8am. Surely I can quiet quit now?
Still, no, I’m afraid. There will be a time, Seeber says, “when teenagers only want you for food and money, but still expect you to be there at the drop of a hat when they need something”, and that’s what we call unconditional love, which is what you should be modelling. But it’s also important to model realistic expectation, so you can certainly zone them out or take up pottery. You wouldn’t be preparing them very well for adulthood if you were completely perfect.
Can you quiet quit social media?
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that this would be the easiest of all the quits: nobody on Twitter is relying on your hot take. No one on Instagram will mourn the loss of pictures of your knees on a beach. Why is it, then, that people never do go gently into that good night of social oblivion? Why are there endless announcements: “Followers, I’m taking August off”; “Disciples, this is the last Facebook post you’ll see from me, owing to my new disapproval of Mark Zuckerberg”?
Nobody on Twitter is relying on your hot take. No one on Instagram will mourn the loss of pictures of your knees on a beach
It’s because we all have a deep-seated fear of our absence going unnoticed. What does that mean for our IRL interactions? Could we spin off into the abyss and nobody would notice that, either?
This is impossible, in other words, but noisy-quitting social media is fine too.
Can you quiet quit superfluous grooming?
This is a dumb question, because since lockdown we all know the answer: after the active government prevention of professional haircuts, pedicures, never mind more niche undertakings like depilation, it turned out we could do a lot of this stuff ourselves, and what we couldn’t do didn’t matter.
It falls on us now to define “superfluous”. Is it absolutely necessary to shower every day? “Quiet” isn’t really the adjective for all this, however: the more important question is, can you quit this stuff without people being able to smell you?
Can you quiet-quit highbrow culture?
You can quit highbrow culture no problem, it will merely behove you to stay quiet while other people are talking about it. Since you will strongly suspect that half of them have also quit intellectualism and are just winging it, you may find this a little frustrating.
The more important question is, what are you going to do instead? If you just fill the acres of time left by not reading Don DeLillo with mindless TV and airport pap, you’ve got yourself a different problem. That marshmallow texture of undemanding culture may be easier to digest but it also leaves you heavy and nauseous. Don’t swap Molière for mush, in other words. Give up reading altogether, and take up tai chi.
No hamsters were harmed in these illustrations