7 subtle phrases that indicate a low level of empathy

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Have you ever noticed how some people are thoughtful and considerate of other people’s feelings and then others just aren’t? They tend to say hurtful and insensitive things without even realizing the impact they’re having. 

At first glance, you might think these people are just mean-spirited. In reality, they most likely just have low levels of empathy. And the fact you’re tuned into this suggests you’ve got much higher levels of empathy.

If you’re naturally high in empathy, you may not realize it but not everyone can recognize and feel the emotions of others as their own. Some research suggests that only 36% of people have this ability. 

So how can you tell if someone has low empathy or if they’re just downright rude? Well, as someone who’s had to work hard to be more empathetic, I’ve realized there are certain phrases that people with low levels of empathy typically use. 

Today, I’m sharing 7 subtle phrases that tell you someone probably has a low level of empathy. The good news is if they’re made aware of it, they can increase their levels of empathy over time. 

How many of these have you heard or even used yourself? I know I’ve been guilty of a few of them before I was focused on being more empathetic.  

Let’s jump in.  

1) “I don’t understand why you’re getting so upset.”

Have you ever had a big emotional reaction to something only for someone to chime in with “I don’t understand why you’re getting so upset”? 

This is exactly the kind of thing someone with a low level of empathy would say. They can see that you’re upset but their brain cannot understand why. They’re not wired like you are so things don’t affect them in the same way.

I’ve worked on my empathy a lot and improved as a result. But a few years back my sister, who is naturally high in empathy and I met a girl in a bar who told us a sad story about her boyfriend being in an accident. When she left us, my sister was crying.

At the time I had very little empathy and didn’t understand her upset at all and used this phrase to express that. With more empathy, I now understand those emotions better. 

When someone says “I don’t understand why you’re getting so upset”, it doesn’t mean they’re being rude or inconsiderate. But it’s a dead giveaway that they’ve got low levels of empathy.

2) “You’ll get over it eventually.”

Were you hooked on the hit TV drama ‘Succession’? If so, you’ll know one of the leading characters, Logan Roy (Brian Cox) has a very low level of empathy.

One standout moment is when he promises the title of CEO to his daughter Shiv but later decides to award it to his sons Roman and Kendell instead. When asked about Shiv, he dismisses the question quickly by saying “She’ll get over it.”

When anyone uses a phrase like this it’s like saying the other person’s feelings don’t matter. This total disregard for emotions and how important they are highlights a lack of empathy or understanding for others. It’s a telltale sign that someone has low empathy.   

3) “You’re blowing things out of proportion.”

Is there anything worse than opening up about your feelings and showing some vulnerability only for someone to say “You’re blowing things out of proportion”? 

It’s like they’re saying that your version of events isn’t what really happened and you’re making it into a bigger deal than it was. 

The thing is: they’re reflecting on how they’d react to a situation instead of putting themselves in your shoes. One of the hallmarks of people who have low levels of empathy is that they struggle to view things from other people’s perspectives. 

As a result, they often use phrases like this that suggest you’re making a big deal about things. Really, it just confirms they can’t understand how other people feel. 

4) “Relax, it was just a joke.”

We’ve all been there, right? A colleague or friend makes a joke that doesn’t land and ends up hurting someone’s feelings. But instead of realizing that they’ve upset someone they say “Relax, it was just a joke.”

As outlined by PsychCentral people with low empathy struggle to understand how their behavior impacts others. “They may not even realize that their actions affect other people or they may understand that their behavior impacts other people, but they may not feel remorseful about it.”

When you hear this phrase it’s clear that they either don’t understand the impact of their ‘joke’ or they just don’t care. It’s another one of those subtle phrases that highlight low levels of empathy. 

5) “It’s not my fault you’re super sensitive.”

If you take offense to something someone says and then they turn it back on you, blaming you for being too sensitive, it indicates they seriously lack empathy. 

Sheldon Cooper from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is a perfect example of this. Anytime he offends someone, and it happens a lot, he doesn’t take responsibility he shifts the blame onto them by accusing them of being too sensitive.  

This is quite typical of someone with low empathy as “low empathy can also lead you to believe that the people around you are too sensitive” as noted by mental health organization HelpGuide.org.

It’s important to remember that empathy exists on a spectrum and other people might be lower on the spectrum than you, they don’t mean to be hurtful. 

6) “You’re so emotional!”

Has anyone ever told you “You’re so emotional!”?

Saying this to someone is a form of emotional invalidation as it minimizes and dismisses how they feel like it’s not important. 

I know firsthand how bad this can make someone feel. When I found out a few months ago that I didn’t get a job I was interviewing for, I was pretty upset telling my brother. He didn’t seem to get it and said “You’re so emotional, it’s just a job!”

It was his way of trying to comfort me but in that moment it made me feel like he was judging me and just didn’t understand what I was going through. 

Turns out: being critical and judgmental like this is common for people with low levels so it’s no surprise they’d use a phrase like this. 

7) “It could be worse!”

Have you ever shared unfortunate news with someone only for them to say “It could be worse”?

Although they’re most likely trying to help by reminding you to see the silver lining and be grateful that something even worse didn’t happen, it doesn’t feel good in the moment. 

When it comes to difficult situations, most people are looking for some emotional support. However, because people with low empathy struggle to take on the emotions of others, they don’t know how to be emotionally supportive. 

The result: they end up saying something like “It could be worse” which comes off as cold, insensitive, and a bit dismissive even though that’s probably not their intention. 

The bottom line

It’s important to remember if you hear someone using some of these phrases it doesn’t mean that they’re not good people, it’s just that everyone is born with different levels of natural empathy

The good news is that empathy can be improved if someone is willing to work at it. Try to be patient and supportive of people who are working on this aspect of themselves. 

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Cat Harper

Cat is an experienced Sales and Enablement professional turned writer whose passions span from psychology and relationships to continuous self-improvement, lifelong learning and pushing back on societal expectations to forge a life she loves. An avid traveler and adventure sports enthusiast, in her downtime you'll find Cat snowboarding, motorcycling or working on her latest self-development project.

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