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empathy and sympathy - the difference

The Quick Answer
Empathy denotes the ability to understand and share the feelings of another (having shared the same, or a similar, experience).

Sympathy denotes feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune.

Empathy and Sympathy

Writers often confuse empathy and sympathy. These two words are similar in meaning, but they are not the same. If you use the wrong one, you will either change the meaning of your sentence or be spotted as someone who doesn't know the difference.

Empathy

The noun empathy denotes the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. This ability usually derives from having shared the same, or a similar, experience. For example, you can have empathy for a poor person if you are, or were, poor. More examples:
  • I have empathy for your problem. I've been there.
  • Empathy is at the heart of the actor's art. (Meryl Streep)
  • The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy. (also Meryl Streep)
  • Friendship is a living thing that lasts only as long as it is nourished with kindness, empathy and understanding. (anon)
The corresponding verb is to empathize:
  • I can empathize with you. I've been there.
  • He will empathize with you. He managed the same department for ten years.

Sympathy

The noun sympathy denotes feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune. For example:
  • You have my utmost sympathy. You trained like a demon for that race.
  • I would like to extend my sympathy to your son. I'm very sorry to hear of the death of his goldfish.
The corresponding verb is to sympathize:
  • The vicar will sympathize with you. She knows how hard you trained.
  • (There is no suggestion the vicar has trained hard herself (that would be empathize not sympathize). As a result, the preposition with does not feel right with to sympathize because sympathizing usually means you haven't experienced the bad event yourself. With seems a better fit for empathize. However, it is used with both verbs.)
Sympathy is not always about feelings of pity and sorrow. It can also mean to understand or to agree with. It carries a connotation of not full support. For example:
  • It's hard not to have sympathy with their claims.
  • It's clear from her inaction that she sympathizes with their cause.
Top Tip

Everyone Empathizes with Me, Sir

If you need to tell your boss he's too abrupt (or whatever), tell him the rest of the staff empathize with you. (This means they've told you he's abrupt to them too.) If you tell him the rest of the staff sympathize with you, it means he's just abrupt to you.

It's a neat line for a formal letter. It's polite, but it's cutting.
Quick Test