Words at Play

What's the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy?

Though the words appear in similar contexts, they have different meanings

What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?

For the most part, these two nouns are not used interchangeably, but often we encounter them in contexts where their nuance is diminished or perhaps not relevant, providing no obvious indication why one was chosen over the other:

In order to succeed, humanitarian efforts require a "Goldilocks" solution--just the right mix of force and charity, sympathy and structure, blind will and determined follow-up.
—Wilfred M. McClay, The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2008

Given his rich familiarity with things European, it is not surprising that Mr. Lewis writes with sympathy and perceptiveness about Edith Wharton.
—Frank Kermode, The New York Times Book Review, 11 July 1993

He's the good man here, as he was in "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Dead Poets Society," and he does a fine job of it: he shows the warmth and reticence and empathy that Dr. Sayer needs.
—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, 11 Feb. 1991

But crying as an embodiment of empathy is, I maintain, unique to humans and has played an essential role in human evolution and the development of human cultures.
—Michael Trimble, The New York Times, 11 Nov. 2012

The difference in meaning is usually explained with some variation of the following: sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them.


In general, 'sympathy' is when you share the feelings of another; 'empathy' is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them.

The nouns share a common root: the Greek noun pathos, meaning "feelings, emotion, or passion." Pathos itself refers to the evocation of pity or compassion in a work of art or literature.

Sympathy (from sympathēs, "having common feelings, sympathetic") has several senses in the dictionary, among them "the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another." When we hear of sympathy, we tend to think of situations involving emotional pain:

The distress of her sister, too, particularly a favourite, was before her; and as for their mother, when Mrs. Jennings considered that Marianne might probably be to her what Charlotte was to herself, her sympathy in her sufferings was very sincere.
—Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, 1811

There was a caress in the soft winds; and the whole mood of the darkness, he thought, was one of sympathy for himself in his distress.
—Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, 1895

When a friend grieves over the loss of a loved one, you might send that friend a sympathy card. The card says that you are feeling sad along with your friend because your friend is grieving.

The sym- in sympathy means "together" or "at the same time" and is the same Greek prefix that one finds in synonym, symmetry, and symposium (originally, an occasion for getting together and drinking).

Empathy emphasizes the notion of projection. You have empathy for a person when you can imagine how they might feel based on what you know about that person, despite not having those feelings explicitly communicated:

As time has gone on, this insight has proved pretty useful, helping me develop empathy not just for bad boyfriends and crazy bosses, but for understanding my home state of Texas…
—Mimi Swartz, The New York Times, 17 July 2015

But the letters show, as he repeats stories told to him by participants in battle, the kind of imaginative empathy that makes him fully deserve his reputation as a war poet.
—Monroe K. Spears, American Ambitions, 1987

The sentiment behind empathy is often presented in the familiar idiom to put (oneself) in another's shoes.

A major difference between sympathy and empathy is how long each has been around. Compared to sympathy, which first appeared in English in the 16th century, empathy is a relatively new coinage, one originating from a relatively young science: psychology.

By empathy, one organism is aware at once that another organism is aware of an object. An animal reacting to his reaction would come under this definition. Yet altogether the definition marks off a class of mental events that are normally human, and it serves for the human being to differentiate the conscious from the unconscious.
—Edwin G. Boring, The Psychological Review, Vol. 44, No. 6, November 1937

Empathy can be contrasted with sympathy in terms of a kind of remove or emotional distance:

The act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another is known as sympathy. Empathy, on the other hand, not only is an identification of sorts but also connotes and awareness of one's separateness from the observed. One of the most difficult tasks put upon man is reflective commitment to another's problem while maintaining his own identity.
Journal of the American Medical Association, 24 May 1958

Many writers, likely aware of the thinness of the distinction, take pains to emphasize or explain what makes their choice of sympathy or empathy the proper one:

A fuller account would clearly require empathy as well as sympathy—a leap of imagination into Leadbelly's racial conflicts that would almost certainly have been facilitated by more candid interviews with surviving African-American witnesses as well as the personal experience of racial bias.
—Robert Christgau, The New York Times Book Review, 17 Jan. 1993

Empathy has become a fad word for sympathy, though it was adopted expressly to mean something different from sympathy: 'intellectual insight into another's emotional state without sharing in it.'
—John H. Dirckx, The Language of Medicine (2nd Ed.), 1993

Criticism, like fiction, was an act of empathy for Ray, putting yourself in the other guy's shoes.
—Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review, 6 Aug. 1989

Sympathy and the desire to understand other people, the better to help them, are originally, I am forced to believe, virtues.
—Katherine F. Gerould, Ringside Seats, 1937