Toxic communication patterns are unfortunately very common in modern life in the Western world, with workplaces especially bad these days. This blog primarily focuses on the behavior of people with narcissistic or psychopathic personality disorders, but in all honesty, Western societies have continued to “soak up” narcissistic and psychopathic values to the extent that toxic communication patterns are not just restricted to disordered people, but are now widespread among the general population as well.
Put simply, there’s a large section of the population who can and will communicate as though they’re narcissistic or sociopathic, even if they aren’t those things in technical terms and don’t have full blown personality disorders. More specifically, I have personally seen an explosion of covert, sneaky, passive-aggressive toxic communication patterns that would normally be reserved for covert narcissists, among the general population as well.
Put differently again, there’s a whole lot of jerks about these days, who don’t communicate on a sincere or straightforward level, and are happy to (often sneakily) use the written or spoken word to disrespect and abuse others without a second thought. This makes modern life (particularly the world of work) increasingly toxic and annoying to navigate, but pinning down in more precise words how people communicate in toxic ways is a starting point we hope to provide in this guide.
Let’s get started.
Some Covertly Toxic Patterns Of Communication
To list some example of how modern people can communicate toxically, I wanted to start off with the communication patterns of the covert narcissist, since it’s a perfect template of how people in general communicate when they’re being toxic and looking to take subtle or sly “digs” at you.
The covert narcissist has the same pathological personality as the overt narcissist, but is also painfully aware of social norms and is therefore more sneaky and undercover with the ways they abuse and disrespect others. It’s much the same with the general population – overt bullying is more obvious and easier to clamp down on, so people nowadays seem to resort to more sneaky ways to verbally disrespect others.
See the video from Abdul Saad below on some common abusive/toxic traits of the covert narcissist – some of the same abusive patterns of communication continue to also spread among parts of the general population.
Covert toxic communication patterns (16:45 timestamp)
Here are some good example and points made in the video in this regard:
- Toxic communicators/covert narcissists are the masters of sarcasm, veiled criticism and back handed compliments (again well covered in the video above).
- They’re also good at what I call “by implication insults”, where it’s not as such a direct insult to you, but something you infer from what they say supposedly about something/someone else, but is actually a dig at you. A conclusion you’re led to draw by comparison.
- More generally, they can slip digs and insults in that you don’t immediately process but only sink in some time later when you think several steps on from what they said, and draw implications from it. They can be very precise and calculating with the toxic things they say, and leave you will a horrible internal feeling that may only come out minutes or hours later.
- Sneaky abusers also often only abuse when no one else is around, when no one is looking (still trying to preserve their image at large to others).
- In the online world, trolls are the quintessential narcissistic toxic communicator, since they can hide behind the anonymity of usernames and also love the precision of being able to use words in a very calculated, exact way to covertly insult others.
And then some other forms of toxic communication I’d add to this list:
- Toxic communicators are also masters at disrespectful metacommunication (words behind the words, tone of voice). Things can be said again in a very calculating tone or inflection (condescending, patronizing, demeaning, belittling etc), and which again often only sinks in later on after the interaction.
- They’re also very good at double-meaning statements, where things are said using very precise words that can be interpreted in more than one way, and are often also a covert dig aimed at you (yes, it’s common to think it’s just you imagining this at first, but when you see it’s a systematic pattern of communication with some people, you see it’s a covert pattern of abuse).
- More precisely, you can be having a conversation ostensibly about someone else, but they use what they are saying to also take covet “digs” at you.
- Another toxic pattern is to use “segues” – where they use pre-selected topics they’re talking about right now to pivot to a topic that allows them to take a “dig” at you. Or constantly steering every conversation back to one or two issues that they keep using to undermine/insult/belittle you.
- The modern world of work is also full of “two-facedness”, whereby people do not communicate what they really mean, and in fact often it’s opposite. With covert narcissists, you can encounter a very confusing, contradictory and even schizophrenic pattern of communication, where they’ll communicate something when they mean it’s opposite constantly – “it’s alright, but it’s not alright”, at the same time sort of thing. Because they struggle to communicate clearly and directly, and instead demonstrate disapproval in more covert, passive aggressive ways, often gossiping to others. Very confusing and crazy making over time, and sadly no longer restricted to covert narcs anymore – two-faced people are everywhere.
- Put simply, you’ll encounter a whole lot of passive-aggressive, covert, sneaky, multi-layered verbal nonsense in daily life from people who are toxic communicators
- See our article on the context/content split for some more examples of this.
To summarize all these points, in modern life we often encounter a lack of sincerity or straightforwardness in communication from others, where we’d want people to just say what they mean, and also ONLY what they mean, with no other secondary meaning or “digs” embedded in what they say.
There’s what you’re ostensibly talking about, and there always seems to also be this toxic “second layer” to the words used, that are also taking a shot at you, with toxic communicators. They could have responded to you neutrally and without any layers or agenda, but instead they’ve actually put effort and mental energy into formulating wording that is also a passive aggressive “dig” at you. It’s annoying, but also sad, the amount of energy some people put into this in modern life.
More and more with people, there seems to always be an “angle”, an agenda, double meanings and thinly concealed “digs” and slights embedded into communication. It seems to be getting harder and harder to find people who just communicate in an uncomplicated, straightforward way, without any agendas or toxic “layers” to conversations. Communication patterns in modern western life have become more narcissistic/psychopathic, for sure.
“(In modern life), you’re dealing with middle class scumbags, working class scumbags. People who don’t qualify as having a personality disorder, but will still be a**holes given half a chance”
Context Vs Content In Toxic Communication
Another useful conceptual framework for understanding toxic communication is the context/content split. Let’s briefly explain.
Content – In communication, can be defined as the word suggests – the actual content or reality of the interaction/situation/person. Facts, logic, reason, evidence, reality, who did or said what, who’s responsible or not, fairness, justice, balance, and so on.
Context – In communication, relates more to the impact or effect of what’s communicated, rather than the reality or truth. How a communication impacts the person on the receiving end. Does it provoke a reaction in them? Does it poke at a “wound” or insecurity? Does it upset them? The truth/reality is less relevant here; it’s more the power dynamics and emotional reactions garnered.
In toxic communication, it’s only ever the context (effect, image, impact, appearance, power dynamics) that’s important to the abuser, NOT the content (truth, facts, reason, logic, substance).
This is where overly naive and sincere people get into a tangle with toxic communicators, since they always want to be fair/reasonable/logical/balanced and focus on the content, whereas toxic people usually have an agenda to push and are only interested in context (upsetting/provoking/annoying/smearing/undermining the person) and don’t really care much for the facts or content of what’s really going on or what’s really true or fair.
Once you get a bit more streetwise to how toxic communication works, it’s easier to identify whether you’re dealing with someone for whom content or context is more important, and adjust your strategy accordingly. See our article on the context/content split for more on this, including some examples.
“When communicating with the terminally insincere, you must abandon all sincerity”
Should You Respond To Toxic Communication Or Not?
It’s frustrating in modern life to be a sincere, straightforward person who tries to communicate as such with no agendas or hidden meanings, yet you find yourself constantly encountering verbal/written nonsense from people who actually put conscious effort into being toxic with their communication.
The next logical question though is what to do about it? You will encounter this stuff in workplaces especially. It’s more a question of where isn’t this nonsense going on nowadays rather than where it is, in Western countries at least. How do we respond to it? Should we even bother responding? Because most of this nonsense is sneaky, covert and veiled, it’s more difficult to handle and report through official channels – most toxic people are smart enough not to resort to overt bullying these days.
The answer as to how we respond to this varies in every situation, because workplaces are different, people have different temperaments, and power dynamics vary. Therefore it’s not advised to take any blog post or video online as a sole answer as to whether to “fight back” against toxic communication styles you’re encountering and dish some of this back out to abusive people. Consult with trusted professionals, therapist, coaches, friends and family before making a considered decision in your case.
But here are some pro’s and cons of responding in kind to toxic communication, especially the sneaky, covert type that’s more common now:
Pro’s (to fighting back and responding to sneaky toxic communication with some of your own):
- Some more cowardly, fragile bullies will back off if you give some back to them, and realize you’re not such an easy target. It can be good to send the message to bullies that “whatever you do to me, I’ll do it right back to you“, and rep this out a few times to start taking up more space psychologically in interactions. People can learn you’re not to be messed with in this way and back off. Some examples could be:
- If they take subtle digs at you, take subtle digs right back at them.
- If they denigrate you with dismissive meta-communication (words behind words, tone of voice), then send disrespectful meta-communication right back.
- If they gas-light you, then gas-light them right back.
- If they take shots at you through conversations supposedly about other people, but they’re really taking a dig at you (a common subtle abuse tactic), then do the same right back to them.
- If they constantly steer conversations back to one or two sensitive points, find their weak spots and do the same to them, always “segueing” conversations back to whatever annoys them.
- Become a master of back-handed compliments, always embedding an insult or “dig” into a comment that’s ostensibly a compliment.
- When returning this energy, doing it quickly and with a real “force” and assertiveness often winds up abusive people.
- More generally, aim to grind the context/content split into your psyche, and with toxic people drop the naivety and sincerity and instead focus on the impact or effect of your words, rather than the truth or content of what’s being said (just like they do).
- Self esteem – It’s good for one’s self esteem and confidence to demonstrate and ability to fight back. And it’s not good for self esteem to just sit there and take sneaky verbal nonsense from people.
Con’s (to fighting back):
- If you are dealing with someone who isn’t just a bit of a jerk, and actually has a full blown narcissistic/psychopathic personality, these people won’t back down once you start a battle of wills with them, which is not advised. These people can be vicious and relentless, and don’t let slights or digs go, even if you were responding to them. They won’t stop until they “win” in their mind. Know what you’re dealing with and do your homework.
- When you’re encountering this in a workplace and the entire company culture is toxic, it’s best to know when to walk away and find somewhere better. Try to fight back in the wrong environment and you may find yourself being ganged up on and smeared.
- More generally, it’s often a waste of energy even responding in kind to toxic communicators, energy that could be better spent doing almost anything else. The people that engage in this nonsense are mostly low quality, ignorant, unintelligent people that aren’t even worth investing any energy into responding to.
- If you’re quite vulnerable in your own emotional/psychological state, and easily sent into an emotional flashback or downward spiral, it’s best not to get into these battles, and work on improving your own stability with a therapist/counsellor.
Evaluate every situation carefully, consult with trusted people, examining all the moving parts and power dynamics at play, before deciding on how to respond to toxic communicators. Reflect on whether you’re in a strong position or a weak one when ALL factors are taken in account, and decide whether your battles are worth fighting, or whether you’d be better served walking away. Also, it’s advised to carefully consider the “now what?” or “what next?”. So you fought back with a bully, but now what? How will they respond? What happens two/three/four steps down the line? Will you be wishing you’d just walked away rather than started off a back-and-forth that now won’t ever end?
How To View Toxic Communicators
This kind of nonsense is sadly very common in modern life, so how do we view these people we encounter? How should be categorize them, if at all?
A lot of people in the narcissistic/psychopathic abuse space online get caught up in obsessing about diagnosis, especially diagnosing which “personality disorder” a person might have (narcissistic/psychopathic/borderline), given the patterns of behavior they seem to be displaying, especially their patterns of abuse.
But honestly, unless you’re a specialist, this isn’t even necessary and in fact arguably complicates and confounds the issue.
It’s really as simple as this for dealing with people in daily life:
If a person acts as though they’re a narcissist, as though they’re a psychopath, as though they always need to be provoking reactions in others, as though they always need to be adding toxic layers to their communication and “scoring points” with others, treat them the same as anyone who does have a personality disorder (even if they technically don’t). Toxic is as toxic does.
Don’t even waste time trying to diagnose them – toxic communicators are everywhere now, and not nearly all of them would qualify as having a personality disorder. Simply put your boundaries up, know what you’re dealing with and adjust your contact with them accordingly. Don’t trust these people, don’t reveal anything vulnerable, sincere or private, don’t socialize with them, don’t ever be their friend. Minimize and shrink all with them contact down to a minimum and move on with your life, with strong boundaries.