Sympathy versus Empathy

August 30, 2011 by totalityservices

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The following is a blog written for us by Lily, a native Chinese , who is working with us as an intern over the next couple of months:


Recently, I was reading an article entitled “Overcoming the Golden Rule: Sympathy and Empathy” (MJ Bennett). It was quite amazing to find that sympathy and empathy have such a profound difference in the English language. I wasn’t aware of the theoretical foundation underlying these two terms before, because in the Chinese language, we talk more about “Sympathy” (tongqing) in our daily life; while the word “Empathy”(gongming) is much less frequently used or, more often appears in literary critiques.

Besides, in Chinese culture, when we talk about sympathy, the person who we are sympathetic about is usually in a suffering or negative situation (he or she needs help from others) or even in an inferior position (e.g. a beggar). Empathy is relatively neutral, more cognitive and less emotional in a Chinese language context. When we talk about empathy in real life situation, it is similar to the concept of “reminiscent sympathy”. For instance, if we say “the novel arouses my empathy”, in a Chinese context, it means I have the same experience as the characters in the novel (the experience can be either positive or negative).

Sympathy and empathy also have something to do with intercultural communication. According to the article, sympathy is based on the assumption of similarity and single reality. It has some disadvantages that may hinder communication. In contrast, the underlying assumption of empathy is to recognize and understand the differences. Empathy will facilitate communication. I agree with this point, but the problem is how to develop empathy in real world communication? The steps like suspending self and allowing guided imagination sound quite abstract and very hard to put into practice. What’s more, how can we know what the other person is thinking or feeling since we are not him or her and each person is different? If we fail to participate in the other one’s feeling how can we be empathic?

In the tradition of Chinese culture, we are taught at a fairly early age to stand in another person’s shoes when we have some problems in coping with that person. Perhaps Chinese culture attaches more importance to collectivism. Hence, we assume everyone is similar, and try to use the strategy of “were I you, what would I do?” to solve various problems in the real world.

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