Phrase meaning: "I can't even pretend to sympathize"

A simple question, but I can’t find any answer by googling.

I’ve just come across the phrase “I can’t even pretend to sympathize”.

To me, taking the words literally, it sounds negative, as if it means “I don’t give a shit”. But the contexts I’ve found online seem positive, as if it means “I can’t begin to understand what you’ve been through”.

Can anyone clear up the meaning for me ?

There’s a subtle, but measurable difference between:

  1. “I can’t begin to comprehend what you’re going through”


  1. “You’ve obviously mistaken me for someone who gives a damn”

There are no words sufficient enough to express my feelings.

It’s the more compassionate one: “I can barely comprehend the depth of your predicament- I’m going to limit myself to making noises of empathy, which I hope will not disturb or offend you.”

Not a particularly great phrase, in my opinion, because it is a sort of vapid, distancing statement.

I think it became popular because people seem to have become very prickly in accepting the usual statements of sympathy/empathy. Maybe people have become more narcicistic. Anyway, nobody wants to hear twice, “How could you possibly understand *my *pain from the death of my (spouse/lover/child/pet/…)!”

I don’t actually know the phrase, but the meaning of pretend might be different that the more usual “feigning”. It also means “laying claim to a quality”, so if that’s what it means in this case it means “I can’t lay claim to knowing how this feels”. So IOW, what Claverhouse said.

Thanks for the responses, guys. I’d never seen the phrase before, and had no idea if the person I was talking to was being sympathetic or bitchy. That’s the trouble with written communication, I guess…

If it is meant to be a positive thing, it is stupid. Someone can always pretend to sympathize, and if they are saying this to be kind rather than snarky they are sympathizing (or certainly pretending to). What they mean seems to be “I can’t begin to understand what you are going through (but I sympathize),” or “I can’t really empathize (never having been through anything similar myself), but I do sympathize.”

Sympathy still requires an emotional context. If someone told me their entire family was killed in a horrific accident, I couldn’t empathize or sympathize, because nothing I’ve experienced has anywhere close to the same emotional depth as an event like that. I would be as sympathetic as possible, but it wouldn’t be enough–it would be a transparent fake.

The line says “pretend” but the subtext is “pretend well enough that it wasn’t an obvious fake”.

Again, I don’t think pretend is being used to mean “make believe”.

“I can barely imagine what you must be feeling right now.”

I do not think you are grasping the (admittedly subtle) distinction between empathy and sympathy.

I think you’d have to evaluate it based on the tone of the rest of the letter. It could mean either of the (opposite) ideas mentioned above.

I’m aware of the distinction. Genuine (or genuine-sounding) empathy requires the subject to have experienced a similar situation–the death of a parent, etc… Sympathy doesn’t require matching the exact internal emotional state of the target, but I posit that it will come across as artificial unless the subject has had an experience of the same general magnitude. Otherwise you’re liable to say “I’m so sorry your dad died” in the same tone as “I’m so sorry your soup was cold.”