sympathy/ empathy

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Puellam audiam, Nov 1, 2007.

  1. Puellam audiam

    Puellam audiam Senior Member

    Taiwanese, Mandarin
    Hi, everyone!:)

    I would like to know what's the crucial difference between "sympathy" and "empathy"? They seem pretty much the same in definitions, at least to me...

    Thanks for your kind attention!
  2. Empathy is more personal. If you lost your mother in a car accident, and a couple years forward, your friend loses his mother, your friend's emotions will bring you back into that state and you can feel it personally.

    You can actually feel what he's feling and you empathize with him from a past experience.

    Sympathy is when you have not lost your mother, but you understand your friend's feelings by thinking about what it must be like for him in this awful time.
  3. Matching Mole

    Matching Mole Senior Member

    England, English
    The two words do look very much the same in basic dictionary entries, and although they overlap they are not interchangeable in usage. Here are two simple statements that show the words at their most similar:
    "I sympathize."
    You might say this when you feel sorry for someone's plight and you may or may not have been in the same situation yourself. You almost always use sympathize in respect to someone when they are suffering in some way.

    "I empathize."
    This is used when you know exactly how someone is feeling; it is almost as if you are having those same feelings yourself. Although you may empathize with someone who is suffering, feeling empathy for someone does not have to involve negative emotions, such as sadness. It implies a thorough understanding of and identification with another's feelings, whatever they may be. I would say empathy is holistic whereas sympathy may only relate to specific feelings or situations.

    Note that sympathy has other somewhat different meanings to the one I have discussed here. Merriam-Webster's online dictionary has a lot of information on these two words, which I think you would find very helpful.
  4. Elwintee Senior Member

    London England
    England English
    Well said, MatchingMole! It is hard to explain the difference, but I would add that sympathy can on occasion be patronising ("I'm all right, Jack") while empathy never is. Anyone can express sympathy (as in bereavement cards) but empathy goes much deeper. It does not necessarily come from having had the same (perhaps sad) experience, but from willingness to be with the person, so to speak sitting beside them, and listening to them with all your heart.
  5. Puellam audiam

    Puellam audiam Senior Member

    Taiwanese, Mandarin
  6. Lorena1970

    Lorena1970 Banned

    Italy, Italiano

    may anybody explain me in which way the world emapthy is generally used in English?
    How much is it "similar" to sympathy? How much is it different?

    Is it used to express that special thing that happens when two (or more) people are tuned on same mix of feelings, emotions, confidence, aims...and are capable to understand each other avoiding too much words and too much discussions?

    Many thanks.

  7. svaneska Senior Member

    England/ Mallorca / France
    English, England

    empathy --Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives.
    The attribution of one's own feelings to an object

    to empathise with someone – is to feel as they do

    sympathy -- sad concern for someone in misfortune

    to sympathise with someone - is to have an understanding for how they feel
  8. ConusMagus

    ConusMagus Senior Member

    Milano environs
    dal "Concise Oxford Dictionary":
    ...People often confuse the words empathy and sympathy. Empathy means ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ (as in both authors have the skill to make you feel empathy with their heroines), whereas sympathy means ‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune’ (as in they had great sympathy for the flood victims)...

  9. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Empathy is often used for the process of identification which a reader may experience with a character in a book, or which one feels with someone in a film, or in the theatre.

    Sympathy is what you feel for someone you know who has had an unpleasant experience of some kind.
  10. Lorena1970

    Lorena1970 Banned

    Italy, Italiano
    Thanks everybody.

    Empathy is considered a medium for what is called "emotional intelligence" (David Goleman). It means to be able to interact with people and communicate through emotions more than through logical.
    Is it used in this sense in English?
  11. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    Yes, I would say it is.
  12. redgiant Senior Member

    Cantonese, Hong Kong
    Showing empathy with learners is important when they choose to communicate real feelings and experiences......

    Empathy for other people's situation

    Hi, Does empathy for and with have the same meaning? Does "for" used for something and "with" used for somebody?
  13. Dimcl Senior Member

    British Columbia, Canada
    Canadian English
    The meaning of "empathy" much rather lends itself to saying "Feeling empathy for learners". We don't show empathy - it's an emotion that we feel within ourselves. We can show the attributes of empathy by expressing kindness, sympathy, pity, whatever.
  14. Matamoscas Senior Member

    Ireland English
    In my usage I have (or feel) empathy for and I empathise with, i.e I would use with after the verb to empathise. Hope this helps.
  15. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Last edited: Jan 9, 2009
  16. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Thank you TT - as the other threads were short I have merged them with today's.
  17. Aardvark01

    Aardvark01 Senior Member

    Midlands, England
    British English (Midlands)
    Sympathy has many applications:

    In biology sympathetic muscles are involuntary or automatic, such as those required for breathing, the beating of the heart and digestion.
    In physics sympathetic vibrations can be felt in the body a musical instrument such as a guitar which vibrates in response to background noises.
    In emotions - " based upon the fullest knowledge that can bind two hearts in sympathy."

    Empathy is peculiar to emotional conditions and is very similar to sympathy in this context. There is, however, a difference in degree of activity.
    Sympathy, as in its other uses, is a passive state. When someone says they "sympathise" it tends to mean they feel what you feel but their involvement ends there. It can be used as a patronising or dismissive term, as if saying: I know it hurts but it's your problem.

    Someone who says they empathise with you is actively using memory and/or imagination to put themselves in your place. They are more likely to supportively involve themselves in the problems of others. The term is less likely to be used in a detached or patronising way.
  18. VSPrasad Member

    Visakhapatnam, India
    India - English

    the ability to understand how someone feels because you can imagine what it is like to be them

    the ability to share someone else's feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in their situation

    the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

    1. the ability to sense and understand someone else's feelings as if they were one's own

    2. the power of entering into another’s personality and imaginatively experiencing his feelings.


    the feeling of being sorry for someone who is in a bad situation

    a feeling of pity and compassion for the suffering of others

    Sympathy is simple feeling of pity.

    Empathy is usually thought to be deep sympathetic understanding. But it means more.

    Empathy is like stepping into the shoes of another person to
    understand what the suffering is like - it requires a stronger bond between the two persons.
  19. lilblu Member

    I have looked up the meanings of empathy and sympathy, but I still don't understand the difference and when to use them. Could someone please give me an understandable meaning of each word followed by a few examples of when and how to use the words. Thank you.
  20. pops91710

    pops91710 Senior Member

    Sympathy: feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune
    Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
    I have put in red the distinctions. One is a feeling the other is an understanding, as it was explained to me in school.
  21. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
  22. lilblu Member

    I didn't find it very helpful.

    So sympathy is when I feel sorrow for someone else? Like if a friend's relative dies, and I felt upset and saddened, that would be sympathy?

    But empathy is when I'm not necessarily saddened, but I still understand that my friend is saddened?

    Why aren't sympathy cards called empathy cards? Couldn't they go either way?

    So should doctors be sympathetic or empathetic? I'm still having trouble with the meanings of these words. It seems like they're basically the same thing. Very confusing.
  23. pops91710

    pops91710 Senior Member

    I think you are getting a good understanding now!

    Sympathy:I am sorry for your loss. What can I do to help you during this difficult time?
    Empathy: I feel and understand your pain; my grandmother passed away last year as well.
    Sympathy: A doctor may feel sympathy and understands a patient's illness and try to alleviate the pain, but she may not feel his/her distress and pain.
    Empathy: A cancer support group can empathize with the radiation therapy of a member and understand his/her fear because they have experienced the procedure as well

    Why sympathy and not empathy cards? That's a good question. Simply put, anyone can feel sympathy, but not everyone can have empathy if they do not understand or have experienced the same event. So anyone can send a sympathy card. But if the market was for empathy cards, then supposedly only those who have experienced and understand the same sadness or tragedy would be buying and sending them.

    Doctors can be both sympathetic and empathetic, depending on their own personal experiences. All can be sympathetic, some can be empathetic.

    I lifted the following from
    It is well worth the read and is by far the best and most accurate of the results I found for Sympathy vs Empathy. Some were just plain wrong, even reversed!

    "Empathy is a much deeper sense of emotion and a sense that you can feel another's feelings and state of being along with feeling sympathetic to their issue. (Sometimes you can be empathetic and not sympathetic but this isn't as common, e.g., an abuser may understand the feeling of being abused, but still abuses.) Sympathy is a feeling of understanding the issue and wanting to help the one in need. Most of the time empathy and sympathy are used in a sense of sharing unhappy feelings, but the sharing of happy feelings is also possible."
  24. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    It might help to think of one of the most common examples of empathy, that is the feeling one has for a character in a film or a book. Sometimes one enters so completely into their feelings that one is frightened when they are frightened or happy when they are happy.
  25. Parla Senior Member

    New York City
    English - US
    I don't know if it will be helpful, but here's a real-life difference as I see it:

    A friend of mine fell and broke her arm. It was in a sling for a while, she was unable to use that hand to write or eat, which she normally does (she had to do these things awkwardly, with the other hand), and so on. I felt sympathy for her: I was sorry, I offered to assist her, and so on.

    Another friend of mine had orthopedic surgery and is now having physical therapy in order to be able to walk without assistance. I also had orthopedic surgery in the past, not the same surgery but similar, and I had to have physical therapy over many months in order to be able to walk without assistance. I feel empathy: I know the feeling of helplessness when one cannot walk unassisted, the times of discouragement during therapy because muscles will not work right, and so on.

    I know the emotions this friend now feels, because I've had them. I could only imagine how my friend who broke her arm must have felt.
  26. easysl New Member

    I want to ask what is the difference between the two 'sympathy' and 'empathy' and when and how to use these two?
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 13, 2012
  27. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Hello Easysi,

    You're supposed to show at least that you've looked the words up in the dictionary, and make a shot at comparing the definitions that you've found. Then we can see what it is that you find puzzling.
  28. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima (English Only)

    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    Mod note: I have merged easysl's thread (post 26) with an earlier thread.

    Easysl - TT gives good advice. You can also look at the earlier discussion.

Share This Page