CS Sealey

New Zealand-based sub-editor, writer and author

The difference between sympathise and empathise

TLDR: Sympathise means to feel sorry for someone, empathise means to understand and agree with them.

Though only a few different letters separate the two, there’s actually quite a significant difference between the words sympathy and empathy, or sympathise and empathise. As you may have guessed, however, they do share the ending ‘-pathy’ or ‘-pathise’, which is derived from the Greek word pathos meaning ‘feeling’. So we’re looking at two words which involve emotions, but what’s the difference?

sympathise (verb)—to feel or express feelings of sorrow for another’s misfortune or situation

’It’s not hard to sympathise with such a tragic character. If there was only something we could do for him.’

empathise (verb)—to understand and share the feelings or opinions that others also have

’While I empathise with your situation, constable, I must also do my duty.’

One way to explain the difference is to imagine yourself watching a movie. The screenwriter creates a character so realistic and relatable that the viewer empathises with them when they must make a tough decision. The level of empathy dished out to the character is a reflection of the viewer’s experiences and character, in many ways—for if the character in the film is a policeman forced to decide whether to chase down a mass murderer (leaving his latest victim to die) or help the victim (and let the murderer get away to potentially kill another person), a policeman viewing the film is more likely to understand the predicament and empathise more acutely.

In contrast, sympathy is expressed more readily by a broader range of people. If you see a distressed child crying for her mother in a supermarket, you will feel sorry for her (hopefully) and try to reunite her with mum. Similarly, if your friend just lost his job or your son is getting bullied at school, causing them to feel sad, then you will most likely sympathise with them (as well as potentially empathising with them)—give them a hug and talk them through their woes.

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