Empathy vs. Sympathy

The terms empathy and sympathy are often confused, and with good reason. Both of the words deal with the relationship one has to the feelings and experiences of another. Today we explore the differences between these terms and how they are most commonly used.

Both sympathy and empathy have roots in the Greek term páthos meaning “suffering, feeling.” The prefix sym- comes from the Greek sýn meaning “with, together with” and the prefix em- derives from the Greek en- meaning “within, in.”

Sympathy is the older of the two terms. It entered English in the mid-1500s with a very broad meaning of “agreement or harmony in qualities between things or people.” Since then, the term has come to be used in a more specific way. Nowadays sympathy is largely used to convey commiseration, pity, or feelings of sorrow for someone who is experiencing misfortune. This prevailing sense is epitomized in the category of greeting card most often labeled “sympathy” that specializes in messages of support and sorrow for those in a time of need.

Consider the following examples:

“There was little sympathy in England for David Beckham … when he received a red card in a 1998 World Cup loss to Argentina.” —New York Times,  July 2, 2015

“…the new [Facebook] feature would automatically replace the existing ‘like’ button with a ‘sympathize’ one when users tag their statuses with a negative emotion, like ‘sad’ or ‘depressed.’” —New York, December 6, 2013

Empathy entered English a few centuries after sympathy—in the late 1800s—with a somewhat technical and now obsolete meaning from the field of psychology, which referred to the physiological manifestation of feelings. Unlike sympathy, empathy has come to be used in a more broad way than it was when it was first introduced into the lexicon; the term is now most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, thereby vicariously experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.

Consider the following examples:

“…many of us believe that if more lives are at stake, we will — and should — feel more empathy (i.e., vicariously share others’ experiences) and do more to help.” —New York Times, July 10, 2015

“I think that’s almost what it is sometimes if you sum up what acting is. It’s just the ultimate expression of empathy.” —Emily Blunt, Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2014

To sum up the differences between the most commonly used meanings of these two terms: sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.

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