What’s the Difference Between ‘Sympathy’ and ‘Empathy’?

alex
February 20, 2021 ·
8 min read
Grammar

There are some pairs of words that just seem to cause problems. It could be that they sound alike. It could be that they look alike. And it could be because their meanings are somewhat related. When it comes to the words ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’, all three of those things are probably true. And the result is confusion. So, what really is the difference between ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’? It’s time to lay this one to rest once and for all.

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Sympathy is Sharing

‘Sympathy’ is a word that, in terms of the English dictionary at least, has been around a lot longer than the word ‘empathy’ – 300 years longer to be precise. And like ‘empathy’ is has its origins in Greek with the suffix ‘pathy’ being derived from the Greek word ‘pathos’, meaning being related to feelings and emotion (and also suffering).

The easiest way to understand ‘sympathy’ is to take a moment to consider the types of greetings cards that people send in times of misfortune for others. For example, when someone dies, a common act is to send a sympathy card. And the purpose of doing that? Well, it is to show a particular person or family that we are sharing our heartfelt feelings at their loss. That we are thinking of them. That we acknowledge that they are suffering and that we feel for them.

They key word here is ‘sharing’. We show, through an act or with words, that we recognize the sorrow that another person is feeling. And in recognizing that, we show support, and solidarity.

And another way to think about sympathy is to consider someone who is ‘unsympathetic’. That is, someone who makes no acknowledgement to the way another person is feeling. Have you ever had a boss like that?

And another thing. Giving ‘sympathy’ does not mean that you must have experienced the same fate yourself. It is possible to recognize that someone is suffering even if you have never lived the same experience. 

It is also important to recognize that sympathy has another, connected meaning in English. For example:

I have sympathy with those people who want the laws to be changed.

In this statement, someone is admitting that they approve of those people of whom they speak. Now, that ‘sympathy’ may stop short of actual support, but it is recognizing that those people deserve to feel the way they do. This is a common refrain of a politician who may recognize that voters are upset, but is admitting that he or she cannot change the situation, for one reason or another.

Empathy is Understanding

And so that brings us to ‘empathy’. 300 years younger than sympathy – at least in terms of being recognized in the English dictionary – this is another word derived from Greek with that ‘pathos’ suffix, meaning emotion and feelings. Indeed, emotions and feelings are an essential ingredient to ‘empathy’, just as they are with ‘sympathy’.

But that does not mean that ‘empathy’ can be used as a synonym of ‘sympathy’. In fact, doing this may result in causing great offence. That is because ‘empathy’ is connected deeply with understanding, rather than just recognition of a feeling.

Let us compare two different situations to clearly state the difference between ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’.

Someone suffers from a disability. Perhaps they lose their sight. Now, although most of us could try and imagine what that must be like, the fact is that we cannot know what it is like to not be able to see unless we actually cannot see. In short, you cannot have empathy with someone who is blind unless you are blind yourself. And if someone loses their sight, we can offer deep sympathy, not empathy unless we too cannot see.

And then let us again consider the situation of bereavement – when someone experiences the loss of a loved one. Due to the very nature of life, that is something that every single one of us will experience ourselves. And when we do, and then later on someone we know suffers the same or similar experience, we can relate our own understanding of their emotions directly to the emotions we experience. That is emotional understanding. And that is ‘empathy’.

Of course, no two people experience things in the same way. But if someone’s experience triggers connected feelings to your own experience, then you are experiencing feelings of empathy. Because you are in that other person’s shoes in your own mind.

‘Sympathy’ vs. ’empathy’: one other difference

So we have seen that ‘sympathy’ is sharing in another person’s feeling while ‘empathy’ is understanding it, probably because you have suffered the same or a similar fate yourself. But there is another crucial difference.

‘Sympathy’ is always offered in a time of emotional sadness. For example, you do not send a sympathy greeting card when someone is getting married or gets a new job. If you did, that would be suggesting they have married the wrong person or that you do not approve of that job.

Empathy, on the other hand, does not need to be connected to a negative feeling. For example, someone who has won the lottery can be empathetic with someone else who wins the lottery. And to most people, that is not a situation that calls for feelings of sadness. It simply means that one lottery winner can understand the probable emotions evident in another lottery winner. That’s empathy.

‘Sympathetic’ and ‘empathetic’

‘Sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ are nouns. The related adjectives are ‘sympathetic’ and ‘empathetic’, with the opposite adjectives being ‘unsympathetic and ‘unempathetic’. 

Examples:

‘With deepest sympathy for your loss’ – A common greeting card refrain.

‘I have empathy with your loss. I too lost my father a few years ago.’

Although sympathetic, my boss couldn’t give me time off because my dog had run away.

‘I have empathy with your loss. I too lost my father a few years ago.’

‘The two players, although rivals, shared great empathy, as only two world-class athletes could.’

One last thing

If you are not sure what is the correct word to use in context, you need a smart writing tool to assist. A tool that gives you instant definitions of any word you need. That’s why you should choose Linguix – an AI-powered assistant for all of your writing needs. 

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