Word of the Day / Simpati

Being nice doesn’t always work out – no matter what language you’re speaking.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

I once heard an Israeli actress telling a radio host about an embarrassing incident that occurred shortly after she moved to the United States. To the best of my recollection, she wanted to thank someone famous for inviting her to a party and chose a condolence card instead, because it had the word "sympathies" on it and she wanted to convey that she thought he was a nice guy.

This actress got understandably confused, because in Hebrew, simpati means “likeable,” “friendly” or “nice,” like simpatico, which comes from the same Latin root as "sympathies."

In answer to the question "What is simpati?" asked on a Hebrew website that offers life tips, one poster responded: "A simpati person is someone who appreciates other people, an agreeable and pleasant person, the opposite of egotistical." If you get the impression that your new boss is very different from the sadistic dragon she replaced, you might tell a friend that she seems simpati. Or you might break out that word if you were trying to set someone up with this really nice single guy you know.

But as in English, the description can also be turned on its head: "He's a simpati guy and all, but" (fill in the blank with your favorite pet peeves). Indeed, that's the kind of "nice guys finish last" mentality that pervades the song "Bahur Simpati" ("SimpatiGuy") by Israeli singer Yael Keidar, who describes said guy as a well-dressed metrosexual who wears rimless glasses, cries at movies and "says he understands me." Instead of a nice guy, she concludes, "I want a man tonight."

Sometimes simpati can also function as a kind of filler for anything good, as in a recent statement by the owner of the Hapoel Haifa soccer team, Yoav Katz. "Our team's situation is not simpati," Katz said last month. "We have a 20 percent success rate and to stay in the league we need at least 40 percent."

As for that Israeli actress, I can only guess she was trying to be simpati by offering her sympathies. Next time, though, she probably ought to wait for a funeral.

It's nice to be sympathetic, usually.Credit: Alon Ron

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