Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Language is always evolving and the English language is known for being exceptionally complex. This is probably because English has stolen so many words from a multitude of other languages and because it's evolved regionally as well. The classic example being American English vs. UK English (And please be aware that Canadian English is an interesting mix of the two but an entirely different version in its own right) or as it's commonly called 'The Queen's English.'

With so many differing opinions on what a word means or why it's no wonder a lack of clear and effective communication is one of the most common issues out there. First world problem, possibly, but a problem none-the-less.

My last two entries looked at the meaning and interpretation of generosity and I've been inspired to keep going along this thread. I spend a lot of time thinking about communication and how definitions of a word differ depending on who you talk to or what you are reading.

I recently finished reading 'The Psychopath Test' by Jon Ronson, who is probably better known for being the author of 'Men Who Stare At Goats'. In my opinion Jon's writing is conversational and utterly enjoyable and I found myself unable to put down 'The Psychopath Test'. I finished reading it within 24 hours, in fact.

But I did have a difference of opinion with him on the definition of a word based on how he used it. At one point in the book he interviewing a possible psychopath and he asks them about identifying with the experience of another person. To gain clarity the interviewee says, "Like sympathy?" to which Jon replies, "Yes."

To me sympathy is not identifying with the experience of another person. I have always seen sympathy as feeling sorry for someone or feeling bad about their situation. Sympathy is along  the lines of 'there, there.'

Empathy, however, is our ability to recognise and acknowledge our shared human experience of emotions. Empathy is a hearty 'I know how you feel.'

This is not to say that we relate directly to the experience of another person, but that we can acknowledge the emotions going on. 

I once worked for an organisation that supported youth living in or from care. By 'care' I mean the child welfare system. They came from a variety of backgrounds and had many different experiences in group homes, foster care, through adoption, or incarceration depending on the individual.

When I first started working there I was the only employee who had no direct experience of the child welfare system. I'd been hired because of my involvement in a volunteer project that built a website to help educate youth on the criminal justice system. My parents had been married for 30 years, I'd been born and raised in one house and I'd attended a total of four schools. My experience was nothing like that of a youth in care who may not know one or both parents, have been bounced from school to school and placement to placement, and have had to take on responsibilities well above what should be expected for their age.

At first I was really worried and high strung because I didn't think I'd be able to offer anything to the youth I was working with without coming off as sympathetic. I saw how much stigma a youth living in care faced and I didn't want to be adding to that.

I needn't have worried though because I quickly saw how I could identify with the stigma these youth were experiencing. No, I  didn't know what it was like to live in a group home with six other kids my age and rely on the government to 'parent' me. But I knew what it felt like to have people judge me based on a label rather than for the content of my character. I knew what it felt like to be limited by the assumptions of other people.

We all know feeling like frustration, disappointment, and sadness. Empathy is the ability we have to appreciate these feelings in another person because we know the effect they have. We are aware of our own happiness, grief, joy, anxiety, excitement, guilt, passion and anger. Empathy is when we are aware of the shared reality of these emotions.

What do you think? Empathy vs. sympathy and how these words are used? Do you agree? Add your comments below

No comments:

Post a Comment

Express yourself here
criticize constructively
I am receptive