Empathy vs. Sympathy: Which Word To Use And When

How are empathy and sympathy the same?

The terms empathy and sympathy are often confused and with good reason. Both of the words deal with the relationship a person has to the feelings and experiences of another person. So, let’s 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.”

What is sympathy?

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 else who is experiencing misfortune. This sense is often seen in the category of greeting cards labeled “sympathy” that specialize in messages of support and sorrow for others in a time of need. You feel bad for them … but you don’t know what it is like to be in their shoes.

Consider the following examples:

“I’ve always liked Saturn. But I also have some sympathy for Pluto because I heard it’s been downgraded from a planet, and I think it should remain a planet. Once you’ve given something planetary status it’s kind of mean to take it away.” – Jared Leto

“Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one’s soul.” – Martin Luther King Jr.


WATCH: What’s So Wrong With “Nice”?


What is empathy?

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.

Unlike sympathy, empathy has come to be used in a more broad way than it was when it was first introduced; the term is now most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.

Consider the following examples:

“As you get older you have more respect and empathy for your parents. Now I have a great relationship with both of them.” – Hugh Jackman

“I’ve always thought of acting as more of an exercise in empathy, which is not to be confused with sympathy. You’re trying to get inside a certain emotional reality or motivational reality and try to figure out what that’s about so you can represent it.” -Edward Norton

To sum it all up …

The differences between the most commonly used meanings of these two terms is:

  • sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters
  • empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another, which is why actors often talk about it.

Like this Word Fact? Sign up for our Word Fact of the Week email!

Sign up for our Newsletter!
Start your day with weird words, fun quizzes, and language stories.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The Dictionary Is More Than The Word Of The Day

Enter your email for quizzes, quotes, and word facts in your inbox every day.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.