Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Differences that Matter (Part I): Empathy and Compassion


In a language, there are multiple words that mean similar things differentiated only by subtle nuance or usage. They might even mean the same things, with the only difference being history (how the evolution of the two words eventually arrived at the same meaning), or geography (pop vs. soda). I am intrigued by these differences, especially when the choice of language can emphasize the difference or not.

For example, empathy and compassion sound like synonyms in English. When I was learning English, I remember them being used in a similar manner. More recently, a practicing Buddhist shrugged and reached for his dictionary when we were discussing the difference between empathy and compassion.

The dictionary pointed out the nuance that while empathy refers to the ability to feel the same emotions another person is experiencing, compassion is more about the concern that arises due to that person’s situation given their situation. (But it also goes on to list the other vocabulary as a synonym.)

When I think in English, they are pretty similar. But the words mapped to Japanese are so distinctive from each other, I don’t get them confused. Empathy is translated as doujyou (同情): 同 meaning same, and 情 meaning emotions. Compassion is translated as omoiyari (思いやり), to feel for the other person. As I wrote previously, it goes beyond the feeling of concern for the other person, but is associated with acts that would anticipate their needs (even when those needs are not expressed).

Empathy is important because to be able to share the same emotions allows us to connect as people. But it’s not enough. When our friends are feeling stressed out, the last thing they need is for you to be stressed out. Compassion speaks to the mindfulness we need to address the situation appropriately. Feeling collected and calm, we would have the capacity to help out our stressed out friends. With compassion, we do, anticipating their need.

The distinction I make for these two words is so clear to me in Japanese, and it may be why I feel I am a “kinder” person when I think and speak in Japanese than when I speak in English. I wonder if it is easier for me to be mindful in one language than another.

Photo: Warm Lobster California Roll at Alan Wong’s Restaurant, Honolulu, Hawaii



3 comments on “On Differences that Matter (Part I): Empathy and Compassion

  1. dharmacaterpillar
    December 24, 2015

    Appreciate this post very much as it resonates a lot with my practice and how I approach this issue with others. Many thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • lavayoda
      December 24, 2015

      Thank you for your kind words. I added a small paragraph near the end. I wonder if you still agree.


  2. belasbrightideas
    December 24, 2015

    Yes, I have often made the distinction: empathy is not the same as compassion. Though I may be able to sympathize with your plight (empathic emotional resonance), I cannot truly understand how you are feeling unless I’ve had a similar experience. Good post.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on December 24, 2015 by in Buddhism, Culture, Japan, language, Vocabulary and tagged , , , , .
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