“I understand” vs. “I empathize.” What’s a man’s preferred word choice?


Source: Interaction Design Foundation

Maybe it’s a regional thing and maybe it’s an experience thing, but there are plenty of men in today’s society that feel dismissed by the women who should be listening to them.

Let me start off by outlining the definitions of each word.

Understand
Interpret or view (something) in a particular way (Dictionary.com).
Empathize
Understand and share the feelings of another (Dictionary.com).
Sympathize
Feel or express sympathy (Dictionary.com).

So, naturally, I was a bit confused when someone told me, “When you say, ‘I understand,’ I feel dismissed. Because sometimes, you can’t understand.”

I was born and raised in California, only spending a few months living elsewhere (Colorado and New Mexico). The canned response when we want to express empathy (at least in my hometown) is “I understand.”

But what if I don’t? Is there a simpler way of putting it? Is there something I can say to make the person feel heard?

According to r/AskMen and r/MensRights on Reddit, yes. Yes, there is.

I usually prefer ‘you’re totally right’ ; ) Honestly, I would find both to be dismissive if they were followed by the word ‘but…’ I’d rather listen to a direct argument without being sugar-coated.
u/franky-lfrr

So that adds a bit of a wrench in the cogs, doesn’t it? Now there’s a whole new level of communication we’ve added by using the word “but.” And, to be fair, what if I don’t think you’re right?

I’m not clear how one can share the feelings of another without agreeing with them.
u/tenchineuro
Source: ZipperThot

I’ll clear that up a little. I believe an individual could feel both emotions simultaneously without agreeing. For instance, if a person was set on a “white privilege” tirade, and they shared stories of why they believed in it, I could choose to radically accept the situation and be both sympathetic and put myself in their shoes while still not agreeing that white privilege is a thing.

To me, ‘I understand’ is kind of vague. It could be interpreted a lot of ways, including in a dismissive way.

Words I use and their meanings: ‘I empathize’ = I feel what you feel, I imagine how that must’ve felt. ‘I sympathize’ = I understand your situation, and take into account the circumstances you’re in.

Sometimes I empathize with someone but don’t sympathize, e.g. someone has too many feels and can’t deal, but they’re being unreasonable/irrational. I feel you, but I think you should grow up and shouldn’t have thrown that tantrum. Sometimes I sympathize without empathizing: when I can see your situation and acknowledge the position you’re in, but on an emotional level I don’t give a shit about your problems.
u/furutam

The above is a fantastic illustration of the difference between the two words.

Among those on Reddit I queried, I also asked around my office. I work with a diverse set of folks, so I thought I’d get the views of straight and non-straight males.

Most of the straight males didn’t mind “I understand” as a response. However, the non-straight males I asked were quite adamant on not using that phrase. They didn’t even approve of the word “empathize.” What they wanted was, “That helps me understand better.”

So, in conclusion, women, choose your words carefully. Treat men the way they want to be treated. After all, they’re only trying to help you understand them.


For more commentary and insane ramblings, check out my YouTube channel!

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