4 Things That Are Not Truly ‘Toxic’ (Even Though They Are Often Called That)

by Casira Copes
A woman with long brown hair in a striped shirt puffing her cheeks and looking annoyed
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When something is toxic, you need to get it out of your life — immediately. The word is synonymous with “poison” for a reason. It has connotations of abuse and severe harm, with dictionary definitions that include words and phrases like “insidious” and “extremely harsh.” Yet the overuse of the word toxic has seemingly become online shorthand for anything even mildly unpleasant lately.

That’s not to say “toxic” is never a useful word. Part of what has given it so much staying power is the way it helps us to articulate the severity of so many societal problems, like toxic masculinity.

But somewhere along the digital lines, we stopped calling things bad or annoying. The ante was upped, and the way we talk about negative things seems drastically altered in a way that can be detrimental at times. At some point, our culture seems to have stopped saying “I don’t like that” in favor of more expressive (and, at times, exaggerated) language.

If you’ve also witnessed this, or engage in it yourself, here are a few things you might want to reconsider calling “toxic”:

1. People you don’t get along with.

It feels like toxicity has been named the underlying factor behind every failed relationship or friendship gone awry these days.

There’s nothing wrong with reevaluating a relationship and realizing you don’t want to be in it. It’s okay to split from people that you’re not compatible with. But a lack of compatibility isn’t indicative of someone’s “toxic” nature.

Calling a person toxic is about a half-step away from calling them abusive (and some people do use “toxic” to mean abusive). That’s a serious accusation to make, which means it shouldn’t be a word used lightly in regards to people. Having mismatched personalities or realizing you don’t actually enjoy someone’s company that much are definitely good reasons to terminate a relationship. But on their own, they’re not signs of toxicity.

Reserve “toxic” for the people who really deserve it.

It’s okay to split from people that you’re not compatible with. But a lack of compatibility isn’t indicative of someone’s “toxic” nature.

2. A less-than-perfect work environment.

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While I do believe American work culture as a byproduct of capitalism is about as toxic as it gets, that doesn’t mean every individual work environment is bad for every individual person, let alone toxic.

Yet a growing number of online articles are urging people to look at their jobs through the lens of toxicity. Take this article on Top Resume. While some of the advice is sound and beneficial — like recognizing harassment and unfair compensation — other so-called signs of a “toxic” day job are just plain bizarre: “Is anyone happy to be working there? Is anyone smiling? Are conversations positive and upbeat? Is anyone talking at all? A ‘no’ to these questions equals toxicity.”

A “no” to these questions actually means that sometimes people just come to work for their paycheck and then go home. Some people are indifferent to their work, and that’s okay. It’s important not to confuse a lack of “positive and upbeat” energy for abject misery.

Whether or not your coworkers are oozing sunshine says absolutely nothing about the toxicity of a work environment for you as an individual. If you are not suffering and have not witnessed suffering, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to just start looking for reasons to give up a stable income.

3. Behaviors that aren’t neurotypical.

Almost every article on eliminating “toxic” habits and behaviors will zoom in on things that tend to be commonplace for neurodivergent people, especially those with autism or ADHD. I’ve seen articles urge people to limit their browser tabs and only engage in a single activity at a time because apparently multitasking is toxic. As a person who often needs to occupy both my hands and my mind with different things in order to focus, my ADD and I are not amused.

Labeling relatively harmless behaviors as toxic does nothing but induce shame.

Everyone functions differently. And while it’s true that certain habits and behaviors should sometimes be tweaked or modified to better serve your lifestyle and goals, labeling relatively harmless behaviors as toxic does nothing but induce shame.

My 20 browser tabs aren’t hurting anybody.

4. Everything bad.

Again, it’s about connotation. Something can be objectively bad without also being so immensely negative that it deserves to be labeled as toxic.

If you find yourself uttering that word a lot, here’s a brief checklist to keep in mind for what actually warrants the term:

Is the thing ongoing and/or repetitive?

Does it have a significant negative effect on the quality of your life?

Can it be easily modified in a way that renders it harmless?

Toxic behavior, people, workplaces, and mindsets are no joke and can take a serious toll on a person’s mental health if left unchecked. Let’s preserve the severity of that and the understanding that goes with it by chucking “toxic” as the go-to word for “unpleasant.”

It’s okay to just dislike things.