I searched and read many online posts about the word. I still don't understand what it means. Does sympathy mean sadness?


  1. I show my sympathy with this card.
  2. I can't deal with all these sympathy.

please correct my misunderstanding by clarifying what sympathy means and how to use it in the simplest English words.

2 Answers 2


The confusion is probably because the word sympathy actually has two meanings

  1. sharing the feelings of others (especially feelings of sorrow or anguish) - So here it means that you feel sad when someone else is feeling sad too. You share their feelings of sadness.

eg. I sympathise with you on your loss.

  1. an inclination to support or be loyal to or to agree with an opinion - Here you show "sympathy" (or show support) for a cause.

eg. his sympathies were always with the underdog

  • Just to clarify that I understand the meaning. 1, The first explanation of sympathy is feeling sorrow or anguish toward another individual . 2. The second explanation of sympathy is an inclination of support or be loyal or agree with an opinion or a thought. Mar 30, 2016 at 18:22

Let's use the Google definition:

feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune

So what does the word mean? Sympathy is an emotional response, often involving sadness, but a positive emotion in that it shows compassion for the person who has suffered misfortune.

If you said:

"I lost my homework."

I might say:

"My sympathies."

which could be interpreted as either a genuine feeling on my part that I am sorry about your situation, or as comic reply, meaning that I am not sympathetic to your situation because I do not find your situation worthy of sympathy.

Given the context, you might interpret my statement as sarcasm, because I am not really concerned about the loss of your homework. It might be inconvenient for you, but that does not evoke my sympathy.

If, on the other hand, you said:

"My mother died."

and I said,

"My sympathies."

it would be understood as my genuine expression of sorrow for the loss of your mother, and would be something normal you would hear in such a situation. The nature of sympathy is that the greater the misfortune, the more likely people are to sympathize with person who has suffered it.

At the same time, emotions being what they are, we don't always know what events will make us most sympathetic. Meet sad Papaw:


Many thousands of people expressed their sympathy for him when the story "went viral". In context, this is not nearly as sad an event as the loss of a parent, but culturally it evokes a sense of the loneliness of old age, and people are therefore sympathetic to his situation.

Sympathy is a powerful emotion, one that sometimes people might use against you. You might hear the phrase:

playing on your sympathies

which would be invoked in a context where, for instance, a television commercial shows scenes of people living in terrible poverty before asking you to donate to a charity that helps them. That technique has become so commonplace in the West that someone coined a phrase for it - "poverty porn".

The phrase embodies the feeling that charities are unfairly exposing poor people to worldwide media in a bid to raise money that may go to pay the salaries of the people running the charity rather than go to the poor people themselves. Whether or not that is true, the phrase suggests an emotional backlash, which I would describe from the perspective of an ordinary person sitting at home:

"I am tired of these charities playing on my sympathies to raise money for themselves. I've been giving money to these causes for years and they keep showing me more poor people that need help. What I am supposed to do?"

You might interpret this exchange as one where my sympathy for the poor people in the commercial has turned to distrust of the charities trying to help the poor people. You might also interpret my question at the end as a sense of helplessness that I don't have the resources to do more than I have done, mingled with feelings of guilt that I am not doing more, all of which is mingling with my remaining sympathy for the poor people who need help.

Sorry if I rambled a bit, but I want to give you plenty of context to understand the deeper meaning of the word. Feel free to ask about anything you don't understand.

  • You might want to read Aam Boli's answer and edit yours. You might also listen to the Rolling Stones song "Sympathy For The Devil", where sympathy clearly refers to the second meaning. Mar 30, 2016 at 15:54
  • Yes, my answer is framed in the context of OP's question. I think of the second meaning as less common but I will add something to my answer to illustrate that usage. Mar 30, 2016 at 22:43

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