Or maybe you can empathize.
Or maybe, like me, you aren’t entirely sure which one you can do.
At the heart of the words empathy and sympathy is the Greek pathos, which means “suffering,” “experience,” or “emotion.” Borrowed directly into English in the 16th century, pathos usually refers to emotions produced by tragedy or the depiction of tragedy. Tragedy also plays a big part in both sympathy and empathy.
The en- prefix (meaning “in” or “within”) becomes em- when it precedes a p. Add it to pathos and you get empathy.
If you look this word up in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, you’ll find what I believe is a great example of a rather long definition that seems overly descriptive and tortuous but actually contains not a single extraneous word. So I’ll quote it in full here:
The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
What jumped out at me first in this definition is that the first conjunction is and, not or. So many definitions are peppered with ors to cover all bases. But that and here really focuses this definition on a single concept.
The two words that follow and are the ones to remember, though. Having empathy means vicariously experiencing someone else’s emotional state — not just recognizing and understanding someone’s emotions, but actually feeling them.
Similar to en-, the prefix syn- (“along with, together”) becomes sym- when it precedes a p.
Sympathy and its forms have broader usage in English than empathy does, finding use in physics (sympathetic vibrations), biology (sympathetic nervous system), public debate (Nazi sympathies), and even magic — sympathetic magic, I learned this evening, is “magic based on the assumption that a person or thing can be supernaturally affected through its name or an object representing it.”
But where the choice is between empathy and sympathy, the definition we’re concerned with is “the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another.”
The phrase “entering into or sharing” is (probably intentionally) vague here. After all, if two people share a milkshake, they both experience exactly the same touch and taste sensations. With that type of sharing in mind, sympathy seems like a straightforward synonym of empathy. But what it’s missing is that “vicarious experience” of empathy.
Sympathy means understanding how a person feels and why they feel that way, but not actually feeling that person’s emotions. We pull it out during tragedies, and it’s often used synonymously for compassion, commiseration, or pity.
How do you keep empathy and sympathy straight? I don’t have the best mnemonic devices for this — if you’ve found something that works well for you, please share it in the comments — but try this: When you show empathy, you embody the emotions of another — you take them into yourself and feel them fully. Sympathy is the simple act of showing some pity.
Sympathy … some pity. Say them both really fast, and they’re almost the same word.
Like I said: not the best mnemonic.