Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

The English language can be terribly confusing, especially when two words appear to be quite similar in spelling and in meaning. While words like poisonous and venomous have distinctly different meanings, sympathy and empathy can be much more easily confused.

In fact, depending on who you ask, you might even be told that empathy and sympathy are the same thing. I certainly do not claim to be the final authority on the matter, but given my background in English and Psychology, I feel I am reasonably well positioned to describe the difference between the two words.

As I understand it, sympathy refers to feeling the emotions (usually negative) of another person. It typically also involves feeling a certain sense of pity or feeling “sorry” for this other person. If that other person has recently lost a loved one, you can express your sympathies and tell them that you are sorry for their loss. Sympathy is largely related to emotion, feeling the same kinds of feelings as the other person.

Sympathy can also refer to simply agreeing with or having the same ideas as the other person or party. In political circles, you may have heard terms like “communist sympathizer,” for example.

On the flip side, empathy refers to understanding the perspective and mindset of another person. Social workers, counselors, and other similar professionals are usually taught the skill of empathic listening. The goal is to seek the complete understanding of the other person’s perspective, to understand the other person’s emotional state.

However, empathy may also involve having a certain emotional distance from the circumstances so that you are better able to assess the situation more objectively. This is all too important for psychologists, clinicians, and other professionals who may be working with troubled minds. They need to understand what is happening, but they do not want to enter the same emotional states as their patients.

With sympathy, you might say, “I can only imagine how hard this is for you.” With empathy, you might say, “I completely understand what you’re going through.” As you can expect, you may be expressing both sympathy and empathy at the same time. Unlike some other terms, you might actually be right to use either “sympathy” or “empathy” to describe what you’re doing in a given situation, but it’s still important to recognize the difference.

What do you think? Is my assessment of this word pair correct? Or do you have a different interpretation?