Not all toxic behavior starts or ends in a physical fight or a shouting match.
More often than not it can be calm and relentless.
I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood and had a best friend we could call “Chris”. We had some things in common, but we mostly found a connection in the fact that we were both black kids growing up in the Midwest, not fitting into any of the stereotypes that were expected of us.
Chris showed me a lot of music and he got me interested in music production when we were in high school. We maintained a really consistent friendship throughout all four years that was built on a shared appreciation of dark humor, mutual anxieties and an obsession with music production.
After high school, Chris and I went our separate ways for college but would plan to stay in touch and see one another for holidays and breaks. We both continued to produce music and during our time apart I had started to gain a small following as a DJ locally in DC (where I went to school) and more widely on Soundcloud via my remixes and production work.
Neither of us at the time took ourselves and the music work we were doing too seriously, and we loved to share ideas back and forth, while cracking jokes, etc. However, there was a subtle change in our dynamic that started to become more and more apparent. Our conversations became less and less about the music we enjoyed and funny moments in our lives, and more about the things he was proud of or the expertise he felt he brought to me around making music. I knew things were starting to change, but discussing our feelings about this wasn’t a priority for us at that point.
The summer before my last year at college, I went across the country to visit him in Seattle. He had just gotten a job as an assistant engineer in a studio nearby. I knew this was a BIG deal as he had always expressed wanting to find a path to making music full time and working in a studio.
I asked Chris about his music and the progress he was making at his new gig.
Chris’s response was more vague at first, but became much more detailed when comparing his music to mine in an effort on his part to explain why my way of doing things was ‘inferior’ or ‘inadequate’.
“Everyone at the studio is super professional, they actually understand what they are doing…I can’t remember the last time you EQ’d vocals correctly!/// I’m working with a lot of artists most of them actually make their own music instead of remixing or copying other people’s work/// Have you ever SEEN a CLA-2A Compressor in real life?/// You might wanna come by the studio so I can show you how it really goes down.”
That comment made me feel a visceral reaction of anger and frustration towards one of my closest friends. I had asked someone who I trusted and appreciated an earnest question about something I KNEW they considered to be a huge life accomplishment and they found a way to DRAG ME DOWN in the process. Something like this normally would have never bothered me, and in hindsight it feels really nerdy and hilarious, but at the time we were both going through transitional periods in our lives; we knew college was ending and we both wanted music to be a career which for me it really wasn’t yet.
This was one of many subtly toxic experiences, emblematic of a friendship that became destructive over time; calm and relentless. That conversation felt like a character flaw that I knew would end any confidence we once had in our friendship because it was noticeably exhausting for both of us to maintain.
Sometimes the line between something being sarcastic/funny vs. manipulative can be thinner than you realize and ultimately it’s the familiarity of another person’s expression of caring that keeps a relationship afloat. If different signals are CONSTANTLY being crossed and no communication is agreed upon, the relationship may be reaching a dead-end. Chris and I both came to that realization even though we never truly communicated it to one another in the end. We just stopped talking almost five years ago and it hasn’t bothered either of us enough to open a dialogue about it. Maybe for the better.