Empathy & Sympathy: What's the Difference?

"Empathy" is a word that gets used more and more by people who wish people would just get nicer. If only there were more good folks who felt exactly the same emotions as--well, other good people. 

Therein lies a big problem. Watch this video or keep reading below.

"Empathy" is a newcomer to the English lexicon. It's been around only since the early 20th century, after a German philosopher coined einfülung, meaning "In feeling." A few years later, English art critics translated the word into the English empathy. Em- is Greek for "in," and -pathy comes from pathos, the rhetorical term for emotion or feeling. 

Why art critics? Because they believed that you can't really understand a work of art unless you can get inside the feelings of the artist. Creepy? Heck, we're talking art for crying out loud.

"Sympathy," on the other hand, has been around since the 1500s. It has come to mean "agreement." A Communist sympathizer may not pay dues to the party but she agrees with the cause. A sympathetic person similarly agrees with the validity of another person's emotion without actually feeling the same emotion. If you cry because you miss someone you love, I can understand that. I sympathize. But don't expect me to cry as well.

So why does it matter? Why should you know the difference between those words--other than the fact that we word nerds know that words make the world/Earth/universe/civilized world go round? 

Empathy can actually encourage clannishness. It's a moral value, and rhetoric teaches us that you can't argue someone into a new value. Parents can teach morals. Religion does, too. But don't expect classes or arguments to make people empathetic. 

Empathy can actually hurt the environment. Un-cute animals get ignored while adorable baby seals get lots of attention. 

And when it comes to rhetoric, it's best to stay "meta," keeping an awareness of what's going on without getting sucked into the emotions of a moment. That's how we bring people together and make good choices. Which is a good thing in itself.