Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sympathy vs. Empathy: Ya Feel Me?

Normally, conversations or arguments that dissolve into "Well, it's just a matter semantics" are a tad lame, aren't they? It's like throwing up your hands and agreeing to disagree. But without getting into a whole thing here about prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar ('cause David Foster Wallace already took care of that for us), in my humble opinion, words DO have specific meanings and misusing a word can't be argued away with "Well, that's what I mean." And that brings me to my point: Especially in book reviews, precise language is critically important. So, today, on National Grammar Day, I wanted to spend a post to comment on something of a book review word-choice-related, um, issue I've noticed a lot lately.

Here's the deal: Many reviewers seem to use the words "empathy" and "sympathy" interchangeably when trying to explain their feelings for or reactions to literary characters. The difference is subtle, I'll grant you, but they're certainly not the same. Let's take a look...

Empathy suggests a very deep level of understanding of and identification with a character, a sense of vicariousness. To empathize is to know what it's like to walk a mile in a character's shoes, to see the world through his/her eyes. For a novelist, creating empathetic characters is really, really hard, and novelists who do so successfully are truly masters of the craft. When reading Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You, about a mid-30s dude colliding with life, I kept think "YES! He nailed it. I know exactly what that's like, why he's thinking like that, and why he just did that!" That's empathy, in my view.

To sympathize, on the other finger, seems to imply that something bad has happened and you feel sorry for a character. There is certainly a level of understanding here as well, but the sharing of feeling isn't quite as complex or fully realized as when you empathize. Sympathy can actually be counterproductive if taken to its extreme: pity. Pitiful characters are usually not well-liked characters. But as an example of good sympathy, in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, I sympathized the holy bejesus out of Liesl, the teenage girl stuck in Nazi Germany. But, I actually have NO idea what it's like to dodge air raids and eat nothing but weak pea soup at every meal. So I can't say that I could empathize with her. 

To illustrate the difference another way, I'd argue that you can sympathize with a cat, dog or duck billed platypus (normal, non-talking ones), but unless you're a Buddhist (reincarnation), it would be all but impossible to empathize with an animal.

What's your take on this "matter of semantics"? Am I right about the difference between empathy and sympathy, in your view? Have you notice these words used synonymously as well?  Does it bug you?

(By the way, I just went 'agoogling, and discovered that I am about the 4,563rd person to write on this topic. Perhaps, in the interest of originality, I should've looked into that before spending time crafting a post. D'oh!)


  1. I've always considered "empathy" to be superior to "sympathy," probably because (as you point out) it takes certain caliber of writer to create a feeling of empathy rather than mild pity.

    I took a (corporate) training course on communication, however, and the instructor told all of us to ban the words "I know just how you feel" from our vocabulary, because the last thing a depressed person wants to hear about is you and the problems that once made you feel like crap, too.

    Now I wonder if I always preferred empathetic characters because they fan a certain narcissism and self-centeredness, or because it's truly the mark of a great writer. Only goes to show that corporate skills training can really screw with your head.

  2. @Lindsay - See, that corporate training seems counterintuitive to me - if you're depressed, wouldn't it make you feel better to know that there are others who have been in your shoes, and you're not some sort of one-in-a-million weirdo? So, yes, I agree that corporate skills training CAN really screw with your head. I also agree that empathy is a superior "thing" to sympathy. It's harder to write, understand, and feel, I think.

  3. Greg, thanks for exploring the differences between the two. Unfortunately, ot seems to me that the two are becoming interchangeable, despite the different definitions. I empathize with you on your dislike of the misuse of the two words. (How'd I do??)

  4. Wow, I managed to repeat "the two" a lot in that comment... sorry about that.

  5. Greg your post made me laugh. Mostly because after reading a Huff Post article I wanted to write about empathy, or our growing lack of it in this country.
    As for depression,when someone is depressed they really do not want empathy, as it is hard for a depressed person to believe anyone else truly understands how they feel or what they are going through. On the other hand a sympathetic ear or shoulder to cry on is always appreciated.
    I am sure I have been guilty of misusing a term or two, but when I catch someone using the same term incorrectly over and over again I can only assume they heard it somewhere and think they know what it means. We writers should check ourselves from time to time to make sure we are using the right words. Semantics are important when we are trying to make a point.

  6. Greg,
    Great post as always. The same can be said with "affect" and "effect", which annoys me to no end.
    Here's a great link to some book reviewer cliches, I am not sure if you've seen it before but it is hysterical.

    Take care!

  7. i think you are almost perfectly right about the difference, although i think the experience of empathy is somewhat more subtle than being able to relate another's experience with your own exact experience. as you say, empathy is about being able to 'walk in another's shoes' but this is less about having 'been there' as a matter of being able to enter the other person's psychology and emotional experience. actually, if you'd really like to spin yourself out you could spend some time thinking about the fact that as we can never actually know what goes on in another person's head - we only make hypotheses about their thoughts and motivations- all that we think about others is in our own heads. and given that all that we can think is only related to our own experience, nothing about other people really exists outside our own minds. so really, we are only ever sympathising and empathising with our own selves.

    corporate training has nothing on psychology for head screwing :-)

    ps your post made me review my recent use of 'sympathetic'. I really did mean sympathy not empathy but now that i look at it again its use is grammatically incorrect. oh well.

  8. I think you pretty much nailed it. It's weird, because I actually found myself talking about this EXACT same thing yesterday. I was talking with a Japanese friend whose English is only so-so, and I was trying to explain to him the difference between empathy and sympathy (I actually explained it almost exactly as you just did), and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get him to understand. It was frustrating because I am often slightly bothered when people use these words interchangeably.
    Anyhow, when we finally got down to the heart of the matter, I discovered that it actually seemed to be a cultural thing and not a semantics thing. For a Japanese person, empathy just plane doesn't exist. It's not a concept that they're capable of understanding. It doesn't mean something to them.
    At least, that's the case if I was reading the situation correctly.
    In any case, I was absolutely fascinated by this development, and it got me to wondering how many "semantic" issues there are that just wouldn't translate cross-culture.
    Okay, I've rambled on now, and I really have no final point to what I am saying. Just that it's funny that you were writing a post about something while I was talking about it. And now reading your post, I am now even more curious about how something like this could also be cultural.
    And I am also sad that I didn't know yesterday was National Grammar Day, as I would have celebrated.

  9. @Kerry - Yep, you pretty much nailed it! ;)

    @SariJ - Yeah, that reminds of when you call someone by the wrong name, and they don't correct you, and so you continue calling them by the wrong name. The meaning gets through, but it's still not right!

    @Amy - Yeah, I did see the review cliches, but thanks for re-posting the link. Always a great reminder. Poignant. Ugh. :)

    @mummazappa - You're right, I think, that empathy is more the ability to imagine another's mindset, than to actually have been in that mindset - but having HAD those shared experiences certainly helps empathize, right? And the idea of the impossibility of truly imagining others' experiences really is enough to make your brain hurt. Does anyone see the color red exactly the same way I do? Does a grilled cheese taste exactly the same to others as it does to me? Very interesting to ponder!

    @brizmus - That IS fascinating about the cultural differences - and you're right, the idea of how many other semantics issues don't translate cross-culture is mind-boggling. Definitely a very important thing to keep in mind! Happy National Grammar Day +1! :)

  10. Hi there,
    I'm stopping on by from the book blog hop at Crazy for Books.

    I am now following.


  11. I feel ya! Thanks for the clarification!!

    Just wanted to let you know I have a reading challenge you might be interested in.

    Check out the details here:

    Plugs much appreciated!


  12. great post - the misuse of empathy/sympathy and effect/affect are my pet peeves!

    Btw - I loved This is Where I Leave You too!

  13. THANK you for posting this!! I also agree with Amy about affect and effect. I see it like; if you haven't gone through a situation almost exactly yourself, you can't empathize but you can sympathize. And if you affect something you cause an effect on it. I know I don't always use the correct grammar for everything but I do appreciate correct grammar.

  14. Nice to meet you Mr. Dork--- or is it just Greg? ;) I don't read contemporary literary fiction but I still like to know about it. Hope you don't mind a reader of fluff and occasional classic literary fiction stalking you!

    Your photo tickles me. It bothers me that I've never read War&Peace so it is perpetually on my TBR list.

    Love this post! Affect/effect and jealous/envy bug me. People always say jealous when they mean envy!

  15. Ha! Finally someone recognized the importance of meaning. It always disturbs me to hear that something is a matter of semantics and to see words of different meaning being used interchangeably to describe the same thing (as in empathy and sympathy). There is after all a reason why the two words exist, why they mean something different and to use an excuse of semantics is to mask ones ignorance and lack of knowledge in regards to language.