December 2, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: empathy or sympathy & giving thanks

Posted in email thank yous, empathic or empathetic, empathy/sympathy at 6:56 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Empathic or empathetic

A reader writes:

A WLUT question: empathic or empathetic?

And what is the meaning of empathy vs sympathy?

We addressed this a while back <>, but I think it’s time to do it again. Besides, looking this up, brought me to a Sighting that I think is wonderful, so here is our Sighting within a tip.




When is it appropriate to use empathic or empathetic. Are they interchangeable?


empathic= feel strongly about what you are saying.

empathetic= when you share feelings or opinions as if they were your own.

You gotta love it.

So. Let’s get on with ’empathic’ and ’empathetic.’ They mean the same thing and, in fact, are interchangeable. While ’empathic’ is the older term, according to Garner (2009), today, ’empathetic’ is used four times more frequently. Garner goes on to say:

Empathic may soon be uncommon enough to be classed as a NEEDLESS VARIANT.

But I disagree. ‘Empathic’ is used more frequently in Medicine and Psychiatry, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. It may be that we see ’empathic’ as a more specialized term-not used much by the general public, but it will continue to live on.

And the difference between ’empathy’ and ‘sympathy’? ‘Empathy’ refers to imagining oneself in another’s situation and implies shared feelings, and ‘sympathy’ refers to feeling compassion or sorrow for another’s situation.

Empathy: I feel your pain.

Sympathy: I’m sorry for your loss.

The empathetic person actually feels the pain of the loss, and the sympathetic person feels bad that the other person is suffering.

NOTE: Full citations for all authorities mentioned in the WLUT can be found on our blog under the heading ‘About Language Tips.’ <>

Tip 2: Giving thanks?

Today’s second tip isn’t so much a tip as it is a bit of a discussion and question about something I’ve been pondering for sometime: when is it appropriate to send an email that just says, “Thanks” or “Thank you,” and how do you feel when you receive such email?

I started thinking about this when a colleague (and friend) mentioned that she hated getting ‘thank you emails’ because they fill her inbox–an even more acute problem now that we often get our email on our smart phones and Wi-Fi equipment like iPod touches and iPads.

[NOTE: It would be easy to simply say, “Well, don’t check your email on your smart phones and Wi-Fi stuff, but the reality is that this particular ship has long sailed. When I see people–who not long ago wouldn’t have been caught talking on a cell phone at all–using their new smart phones to check their mail during meetings, I know the battle has been lost. Heck, even I have been known to occasionally avoid a boring presentation by checking my email. That ship has definitely sailed.]

Anyway, my colleague got me thinking because I send ‘thank you emails’ all of the time. I send them 1) to be polite, 2) to acknowledge that I received the message or whatever the correspondent sent, and 3) to indicate that I am not ignoring the correspondence or the correspondent. I worry that, without any acknowledgment, my correspondent will wonder 1) if I got the message and 2) if I cared that the message was sent.

But viewing it from my colleague’s (the recipient’s) perspective, I understand. These are ’empty’ emails that do not really contribute to anything. They serve simple as acknowledgments, and I usually do not need that acknowledgment. I make the assumption that if I sent something, the person I sent it to received it.

On the other hand, sometimes, I like the occasional ‘thank you emails.’ Admittedly, it often depends on who the sender is and whether I can gauge the sincerity, but it is certainly nice to be appreciated. And how hard is it to delete an email?

I spoke to another friend, and he told me that he hates them, too. So what to do?

It seems to me that there are times when a ‘thank you email’ is clearly called for: when people have gone out of their way to do something for you or invested a great deal of time or effort. These are situations in which you would expect to be thanked if you were the person acting; thus, I think it is not only reasonable, but desirable, to thank whoever did the work. I think this holds true whether what is sent was solicited or unsolicited. The key is whether it is more than a perfunctory reply to a query. Another occasion would be when someone sends you something that is critical and essential, and you want to acknowledge that you received it. Still another occasion would be when someone sends you something in a particularly timely fashion, and you want to show your appreciation.

So when don’t you need to send a ‘thank you e-mail’? Definitely don’t send them when your correspondent has expressed loathing for ‘thank you e-mails.’ I try very hard not to send them to the two colleagues I mentioned, but sometimes, I forget–it’s such a habit to say thanks–and I slip up. (Sorry, guys.) But I truly try not to send the emails to them. If someone requests some perfunctory information, and the respondent simply answers the query, I don’t think it is necessary to send a ‘thank you email.’ And please, if the information is sent to a group, you don’t need to say thank you with a ‘reply to all’! I guess you don’t need to send one when you know you are going to see your correspondent very soon, and you are planning on thanking that person in-person. There may be other occasions. If you have any thoughts about this, please pass them on. I’d love to hear them.

The bottom line is that I will send ‘thank you emails’ under the conditions I mentioned unless you tell me otherwise. I would urge you to, too. There is still something to be said for courtesy.
Which brings us to the question: what about ‘you’re welcome emails’?


I don’t send them unless there are other queries within the ‘thank you email’ that I have to answer anyhow, but it’s up to you and how you feel. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge a ‘you’re welcome email.’ As I said before, how hard is it to hit ‘delete’?



  1. dobo said,

    emPHatic – expressed with strong emotion, feeling strongly about what you’re saying

    empathic – empathy.

    empathetic – modern (wrong) form of empathic.

    • dlseltzer said,

      Emphatic, yes, that’s why ‘the sighting’ is so funny. But empathetic is not considered wrong. Read the column again to see my views on why I prefer empathic.

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