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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Sympathy & Empathy

Sympathy in Everyday Life
by Candace Clark
University of Chicago Press
$29.95, cloth, 320 pages, notes, references, name index, subject index

During the highly publicized sentencing of Susan Smith, the Spartanburg, SC woman convicted of murdering her two young sons, the Herald-Journal reported, "The defense, which has maintained Smith is a tormented woman who has suffered a history of mental problems and abuse, is expected to capitalize on the officers' sympathy for Smith when she confessed. If they could show compassion, defense lawyers hope the jury will believe that Smith does not deserve to die." Meanwhile, the paper reported that in its closing argument, the state directed the jury to regard Smith's behavior as a manipulative tool: "[Solicitor] Pope said the prosecution's theory is that Smith 'pretends to commit these acts to gain sympathy."'
In our society, if we are worthy of sympathy it follows that we deserve special consideration and leniency. In this original, provocative study, Candace Clark gives intriguing evidence that people do not innately know when, for whom, and in what circumstances sympathy is appropriate. Rather, they learn elaborate, highly specific cultural rules—different rules for men than for women—that guide when to feel or display sympathy, when to claim it, and how to accept it. Clark approaches sympathy as an important form of social currency. We learn early in life that sympathy must be evenly exchanged; that our "sympathy margins"—our accounts of sympathy credits we can call on in time of need—are limited. In her often amusing narrative, Clark describes the do's and don'ts of "sympathy etiquette," cultural rules that people must follow to protect their sympathy margins.
Most disturbing is Clark's identification of a darker, less obvious side of sympathy—its function as a manipulative tool in everyday encounters. What exactly happens when someone gives another sympathy? Is the receiver pleased? Is the relationship solid? Or does the receiver feel belittled and hurt? When our sympathy exposes another’s problems or inability to handle those problems, a show of sympathy can humiliate or diminish the receiver. Generally, Clark constructs a kind of social tour of sympathy, revealing that the emotional experience we modern Americans call sympathy has a history, a logic, and a life of its own.
This sociology of sympathy provides a look at the mostly tacit rules of behavior that govern our expressions of sympathy in American society. Sympathy is not an easy behavior to follow because of factors of class, race, gender and multicultural expectations. As work styles change and as the plight of the poor continues to burden our social conscience, Clark sees the possibility for some norms of sympathy to evolve and change. The volume provides a reasonable look at the social context in which we express sympathy and gage its fairness and appropriateness.

Last modified: January 24, 2016

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