Tip o’ the Day ~ Empathy vs. Sympathy

Posted by on Feb 2, 2011 in Tip o' The Day | 46 comments

A while back someone asked me to do a blog post explaining the difference between the words apathy, empathy, and sympathy. These three words that sound the same, two of which have similar meanings, are necessary words for any vocabulary to include. After reading today’s post, I hope that you’re able to use them frequently with confidence. (If you ever have an interesting idea, whether a recipe you’re looking for, a grammar question, or a book or product you’d like to see reviewed, please leave a comment or send an email! I’d love to hear your ideas!!)

To begin, let’s look up a basic dictionary definition for these words:

Apathy: noun

  • Absence or suppression of passion, emotion, or excitement
  • Lack of interest or concern for things that others find moving or exciting

Sympathy: noun

  • Harmony or agreement in feeling
  • The power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; feeling sorrow

Empathy: noun

  • The intellectual identification or experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another

Next, here are the definitions in my words:


  • lazy attitude or actions towards something that should cause excitement or interest


  • Feeling a deep emotion (usually sorrow) towards someone else normally during a trial or difficulty in their life


  • Feeling a deep emotion (usually sorrow) towards someone else normally during a trial or difficulty in their life because of a similar personal experience

Below you can read a few sentences using these three words:

  1. Although Jill’s parents were offering her a bonus allowance if she made an A on her essay, she seemed apathetic to begin the research and writing of this paper.
  2. My sympathies go out to the families of the service men and women who have died defending our freedom.
  3. Moving across the country can be difficult for a family. I certainly can empathize with teenagers having to leave their friends and begin a new life in another state.

In sentence one above, we see Jill being lazy in regards to her essay writing. Although this may be something she doesn’t get extremely excited about, it’s certainly is not something that she should just slough off.

In sentence two, I express sorrow towards families who have lost loved ones in the military. I can have sympathy towards them, but I can not empathize with them. The difference? I have never lost a family member in the military. Therefore, I do not personally know what it feels like to have someone close to me die in that manner.

Sentence three does express something I personally know about. I moved twice as a teenager to different states. Therefore, when a teen tells me that they’ve just moved, I immediately know some of what they’re going through.

In summary:

  • Use the word apathy when you’re describing someone’s lazy or nonchalant attitude towards something they should care about
  • Use the word sympathy when you’re showing sorrow towards someone in a situation you have NOT personally experienced
  • Use the word empathy when you’re acknowledging someone’s sorrow that you HAVE similarly experienced

Hope that helps! Please keep your ideas coming!!

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