Unpleasant vs. Toxic

Unpleasant vs. Toxic

There is an important difference between interactions that are unpleasant and those that are toxic.

At first glance, both types of exchanges sound like they should be avoided. But unpleasant interactions can be productive. In fact, some productive interactions almost need to be unpleasant to be useful. It’s never fun, for example, to learn about one’s implicit bias. And no matter how it happens, it hurts to discover you’ve made assumptions about someone, you’ve categorized them without really “seeing” them. Yet you’ll never truly get to know that person until you make that discovery.

Striving for pleasantness can be problematic. If you are a woman, you’ve likely encountered someone who believed you owed them a sunny disposition, and perhaps even have been called a few choice names when that sunny disposition was not forthcoming. Furthermore, demanding pleasantness can be tied to civility, a weapon often used by a dominant culture to disempower the marginalized, If civility means something different in your culture than it does to most others, you will find yourself often accused of incivility by those who make the rules. Also, insistence on civility is a tactic used to shut down objections to poor treatment. No one can be reasonably expected to accept bullying with equanimity. A slavish devotion to pleasantness gives the bully an opening to avoid accountability by declaring, “I will listen to your objections when you’re willing to be civil.”

Toxicity is a different animal altogether.

By a toxic interaction, I mean one that makes it harder, not easier, to accomplish whatever its participants are striving for. It impedes rather than furthers any shared goals among those involved. It often produces such bitterness that later connection or communication becomes very difficult. It damages relationships, requiring arduous repairs.

If you’ve been involved in toxic interactions, you’ll have no trouble coming up with examples. The assumption that one knows how someone else feels about a subject inferred from a single, casual statement. The shutting down of a discussion due to what one expects another to say, even though it hasn’t yet been said. The attribution of motives to someone based on conjecture without actually asking them.

Toxic interactions can feel pleasant. It can be enjoyable to put someone in their place when they have said something insensitive (when perhaps they could have been shown instead how they accidentally caused hurt). It can seem friendly and collegial to engage a member of a marginalized group in a conversation about their rights and experiences. The fact that they have little appetite to debate their full humanity will be lost on someone who has never had their own humanity questioned. And the blessed silence when dissent is squelched can feel peaceful and serene, masking the frustration seething beneath the surface for those who have been quieted.

At best, toxic interactions make it hard in a place like UUCC to accomplish aims we all agree on. Strained and fractured relationships make it more difficult to work together on improving ourselves and our world.

At worst, toxic interactions will blast a community asunder. Simmering emotions that result can drag us into a dystopian frost, where each party is sure they hold the moral high ground. The silence distorts understanding until it seems obvious to everyone that the way the other party is acting can only mean their values are askew. With people whose motivations appear to have gone so far awry, communication feels futile. We’re right, we hear. Their wrongheaded ideas don’t deserve a thorough hearing. They should be the ones hearing us! Easier for everyone just to put distance between themselves and others, and the chasm becomes ever wider. The tragedy of such a situation is that sometimes if everyone would stop assuming and listen to one another, they would likely realize they share more than they imagine. That maybe the seemingly unbridgeable chasm wasn’t caused so much by intolerable differences, but by the way the communication happened. That maybe fear, anger, and resentment precipitating from toxic interactions have made an intractable divide out of what otherwise might be routine diversity of opinion for which there is more than enough room under the community’s roof.

Yes, there might be some who discover their rigidly held views and values so diverge from their fellows that the group may no longer be for them. But differences of values and views are endemic to every group, and don’t need to shatter a community unless its members lose their ability to interact productively. Blame may appear to rest with the irreconcilable differences themselves, but it was the way in which people communicated that made those differences seem irreconcilable.

Unlike with unpleasantness and incivility, which obey clearly defined and agreed upon social rules (at least among the dominant majority), no rules exist that easily identify the toxic. By the very definition (as that which makes it harder for those interacting to meet their goals), toxicity is characterized by impact. It can only be determined by examining the extent to which an interaction proves counterproductive. Any community that wishes to reduce toxicity among its members cannot simply agree upon a few basic norms. Knowing what will and won’t end up being toxic, which interactions will and which won’t ultimately become an impediment to its intended purpose, requires knowing the people with whom we speak. It requires learning, as we do in any relationship, how to relate to one another most effectively. It involves committing ourselves to striving to improve, to acknowledge our mistakes and missteps, and to grow from them into more fruitful relationship with those around us.

A community such as UUCC, that wishes to avoid toxicity in its conversations will find itself undertaking a journey of exploration to understand what sort of interactions are likely to be toxic in our spaces. Our covenant ultimately needs to go beyond just striving to do better, but also must include seeking knowledge of exactly what “do better” means.


  1. Frank Hazzard

    >> …committing ourselves to striving to improve, to acknowledge our mistakes and missteps, and to grow…<<


  2. Suzanne Henig

    Suzi, thank you for your thoughtful analysis of unpleasant vs toxic. Very constructive! I see myself re-reading this a few more times.

  3. Elaine Pardoe

    Suzi, my inbox stays so full it suffers from chronic indigestion, so I’m just now reading this. It was worth waiting for, making me more than ever hopeful that soon we can actually meet and share startling ideas instead of germs.

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