Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Empathic, Empathetic, and Sympathetic


When are you empathic, and when are you empathetic? For that matter, what is the difference between being empathic, empathetic, and sympathetic?

Many people use the three words almost synonymously. Are they justified in doing so? Say, a friend is depressed because her mother has passed away. Do you feel empathic, empathetic, or sympathetic towards her? Whichever word you use, won’t the person you are speaking to get the message that you feel sorry for your friend? In that case, what does it matter which word you use? Wouldn’t it amount to splitting hairs if you insist on one word or the other?

Well, in a way that’s true. Whichever of these words you use, people will get the message you want to convey. Perhaps they may slightly raise an eyebrow if you use the word ‘empathetic’ – because it might sound like you are ‘putting on’ or trying to impress – but, generally speaking, they will understand what you are trying to convey.

The way language works is a funny thing. Sometimes an incorrect expression is found to be so much in circulation that when you use its correct version, people may pull you up or inwardly snicker, taking you to be an ignoramus. In India, the expression ‘boarding and lodging’ is quite a popular one. You may see it displayed beneath the names of many of the smaller hotels, and in advertisements. Try telling the hotelier that it should be ‘board and lodging,’ and the chances are you will be laughed out of court.

Knowing How You Feel

But to come back to your friend’s mother’s death and your being empathic, empathetic, or sympathetic. If you have a love for the language, you will want to be particular about the word you are using.

‘Empathic’ and ‘empathetic’ are often considered synonymous. Both derive from the word ‘empathy,’ which the Oxford English Dictionary describes ‘as the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.’ The word itself is an off-shoot of the Greek words empatheia, which means passion, and pathein, which means to suffer or experience. When you have empathy for someone, you can literally feel that person’s feelings – in this case, the emptiness, and the sense of shock, and of pain and anguish, of missing a loved one. It is more than just, ‘Oh, how sad! It must be really awful for her!’ which, basically, is what sympathy, in this sense, is all about. There is certainly a difference between the two. Sympathy may have more to do with values and the intellect and relatively less with the feelings than empathy, which is wholly centered on the emotional and the psychological.

Gem, the empath in Star Trek, notices a cut on the forehead of one of the heroes, Kirk. When she reaches out and touches him, the cut not only heals, but a similar cut also momentarily appears on Gem’s forehead! This is, of course, high melodrama, and the power to heal is by no means a part of being an empath, but it might serve as a rough illustration of what empathy is about.

But when you feel empathy, are you empathic or empathetic?

In general parlance, they are one and the same thing, and it is a matter of personal preference which word you use. I have heard a view that the coining of the word empathetic owes itself to the word sympathetic, that, just like sympathetic derives from sympathy, someone incorrectly assumed that the correct adjective of empathy was empathetic. After all, incorrect usage has been the origin of many a word in the English language. Be that as it may, the fact remains that, alongside empathic, empathetic too has found its way into the English dictionary.

Is There a Star Trek Factor Here?

One can argue that there has been a Star Trek influence on the usage of empathic, and therefore the word is better used when it relates to the feelings of a true empath rather than those of an ordinary person, in relation to whom the word empathetic would be more appropriate.

If you can have empathic from empathy, why can’t you have sympathic from sympathy? That is something to ponder about. Perhaps five years from now, we will be reading essays on the differences between sympathetic and sympathic!

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