Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

The words "sympathy" and "empathy" are ruined

Now and then an English word gets ruined. For example, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (The World Publishing Company, 1959–this is my favorite old stand-by dictionary), “livid” means,

1. discolored by a bruise; black-and-blue: said of the flesh.
2. grayish-blue; lead-colored: as, livid with rage.

How many people imagine “grayish-blue” when they say things like, “He was livid”? Nearly zero, I suspect; in fact, I suspect that most people imagine that someone who is “livid” is red and excited with anger, as that is how we normally experience very angry people (the word “livid” used to be, I assume, useful precisely because being ashen-gray with anger is an uncommon but recognizable phenomenon).

For my point to have meaning we do not have to enter into the old argument of whether the dictionary definition is “right” or common parlance is “right.” Rather, it need merely be the case that the common usage is chaotic or empty; that is, one can turn neither to the dictionary nor to common usage to know the meaning of a word. In the case of “livid,” it is not so that, pace the dictionary, there is wide agreement as to what the word precisely means; instead, it has merely become a word associated with anger but not portraying the mode of anger in any specific or definite way. It has, in short, become a non-value-adding word. Ruined.

“Livid,” however, is a word without any political import. In contrast, “sympathy” and “empathy” have normative connotations to their modern and chaotic usage: “empathy” is good; it means really feeling what someone else feels and reacting to that feeling in an appropriate way. In the movie Species, for example, Forest Whitaker plays “Dan Smithson, Empath,” a character who readily feels as others do and is deeply affected thereby. In modern usage, if you cannot empathize, or “really feel” what others feel, you are insensitive.

“Sympathy” under the new usage is less definite in meaning but somehow less desirable than “empathy” and sometimes downright bad. Perhaps it is seen as a more superficial, less sincere version of “empathy” in which one doesn’t really get inside someone else’s skin or walk in his or her shoes.

If we turn to the same dictionary quoted from above, we will see that the classic definitions of these words differ from their vulgar cousins (I quote the most relevant definitions):


5. the entering into or ability to enter into another person’s mental state, feelings, emotions, etc.; especially, pity or compassion for another’s trouble, suffering, etc.


1. the projection of one’s personality into the personality of another in order to understand him better; intellectual identification of oneself with another.

In vulgar parlance, the definitions of the two terms seem to be more or less switched: empathy is the “true feeling” and sympathy the colder, more intellectual function of the mind.

The Wikipedia article on empathy is for the most part in harmony with the classic definition and starts off thus:

Empathy is the capacity to recognize or understand another’s state of mind or emotion. It is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes”, or to in some way experience the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself.

It is important to note that empathy does not necessarily imply compassion. Empathy can be ‘used’ for compassionate or cruel behavior.

In a bow to what I term the vulgar usage of the word, the Wikipedia article also includes the following:

In addition to the above use, the term empathy is also used by some people to signify their heightened or higher sensitivity to the emotions and state of others. Empathy may be here conceptualised as the ability to fully “read” another person, completely translating each movement into understandable conversation. This, reportedly, can lead to both positive aspects such as a more skilled instinct for what is “behind the scenes” with people, but also to difficulties such as rapid over-stimulation, or overwhelming stress caused by an inability to protect oneself from this so-called ‘pick-up’.

This would seem to be what is classically termed “sympathy”: people resonating with others just as in sympathetic resonance (Wikipedia):

Sympathetic resonance is a harmonic phenomenon wherein a formerly passive string or vibratory body responds to external vibrations to which it has a harmonic likeness. The classic example is demonstrated with two similar tuning-forks of which one is mounted on a wooden box. If the other one is struck and then placed on the box, then muted, the un-struck mounted fork will be heard.

Zig Ziglar uses the words “sympathy” and “empathy” according to their classic definitions in his sales training materials, explicating and contrasting the two concepts. The salesperson who sympathizes with the prospect is less effective because he or she not only suffers along with the prospect but also is inclined to feel and therefore accept the prospect’s reasons for not buying: can’t afford, etc. In contrast, the salesperson who empathizes with the prospect fully understands the prospect’s situation and does his or her best to improve it, typically by selling a problem-solving product.

Zig’s explication of “sympathy” and “empathy” strikes me as genuinely useful, and I have adopted his philosophy of trying to help others without “feeling their pain.” Understanding pain and desiring to ameliorate or eliminate it is not the same thing as feeling it directly and suffering by dint of “sympathetic resonance.” One presupposition of the vulgar concept of “sympathy” seems to be that such mutual suffering is good.

Again, it matters not if the usage of the words “sympathy” and “empathy” agrees with classic dictionary definitions so long as clear, distinct, and widely shared concepts are in use. To me, this seems not to be the case. As with the word “livid,” one cannot use the classical definitions of “sympathy” and “empathy” and hope to be correctly understood, and yet one cannot use the “popular” definitions of these words and hope to achieve clarity, as there is no general agreement as to what they really mean.

For now, the words are ruined.

  • Share/Bookmark