I am looking for a casual and/or formal verb for a situation in which people emphasize the bad experiences they have in order to get sympathy and/or advantage from other people.

For example, in a job interview a candidate talks more about how she/he is desperate/needy in order to take the job because she/he has to take care of 3 kids, 2 dogs and 3 cats rather than emphasizing her/his qualifications.

I am not sure the phrase "to pile on the agony" meets that meaning also.


3 Answers 3


Note that agony is suffering that one experiences, specifically strong mental or physical pain/duress - while sorrow would be the sympathy felt by others due to seeing someone else's agony. So piling on the agony would not work but piling on the sorrow would.

A well known idiom is to play the race card - meaning to accuse someone of racism--or try to present oneself as though such an accusation could happen--as a move towards personal, economic, or political gain.

Adapting this idiom to other things besides race works - so, you can say play the sympathy card or victim card as @P. E. Dant suggests in the comments. The Google Ngram on the phrases is interesting, while race is the most common, sympathy and victim are not unheard of and the idiom itself is well known and common enough that adaptations come through loud and clear with the meaning.

A less harsh term would be pulling at my heartstrings, which doesn't have a strong implication that the person doing so is trying to manipulate you.

The passive form of She played the sympathy card, for example, would be The sympathy card was played by her.


I feel like Guilt Tripping may work for this situation. Although it doesn't refer to someone emphasizing their misfortunes in order to gather sympathy, it does refer to someone who provides you with information that may lead to you feeling guilty.

For example:

Now that I know she has to feed 3 children, I would feel guilty not giving her the job.

It isn't a perfect fit for your description but I feel it does still fit the situation you used.


One colloquial way to say that might be "singing the blues". For example:

"Our cab driver sang the blues about having to work three jobs to support his family, but I think he was just looking for a bigger tip."

“Singing the blues” means complaining, usually about bad luck or misfortune. I associate it with listing a lot of bad things that have happened, like a stereotypical blues song. My lover left me, my dog died, my house flooded, a bird pooped on my new hat, and so on.

The person in the interview also might be "telling you a (or their) sob story". There's a connotation that "sob stories" aren't entirely true and that they're embellished to get more sympathy than the reality might justify.

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