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Quite often we use the word 'sensitive' in a pejorative sense, ie that the person being described lacks the emotional resilience to cope with an everyday situation.

But 'sensitive' could also be a non-pejorative for different behaviour, one who is very observant of people's behaviour, and able to display empathy in a way that connects with people. One who treats people with care, with great sensitivity to their situation.

To me these seem to be two completely different behaviours. (Perhaps the underlying personality makeup could be the root cause of both, but in my experience people are generally one or the other.

My question is about the conflation of these two ideas. The word has become a pejorative when it could be an enormous compliment.

My question is: Does describing someone as 'sensitive' conflate two different ideas?

  • It might, but it might navigate toward one or the other of the different poles of meaning inherent in that term. Like any other noun with multiple meanings can. – Robusto Jun 10 '15 at 10:18
  • Sensitive means reacts strongly to stimuli. If you close your eyes and run your fingers over your face, you'll feel them much more strongly, and with greater detail and texture, as they pass over your lips. By he same token, if you were to do that more roughly, harder, your lips would be the first to feel plain, to be overwhelmed by the stimulus. Two sides of the same coin. – Dan Bron Jun 10 '15 at 10:20
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    I don't understand. You have successfully identified and quoted two different senses of the word. Why would you then think that the word "conflates" these different ideas? Does bat conflate the ideas of the sports equipment and the mammal? – Tushar Raj Jun 10 '15 at 10:26
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    I think the OP means that listeners/readers could easily be confused as to which meaning/connotation is intended. As with many words, context is key (and if spoken, the tonality and emphasis are important clues as well). – Brian Hitchcock Jun 10 '15 at 10:30
  • @BrianHitchcock: Exactly. Context is key. If it's clear, we'd know which sense of sensitive is meant. If it's not, we could guess, but not be sure. In any event, both the senses wouldn't be conflated in a single use. – Tushar Raj Jun 10 '15 at 10:33
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It's mentioned in the comments twice, but it is the actual answer to the question:

Context is key

As is the case so often in English (or any other language as far as I know), it is the context in which the expression is used that defines the meaning.

As you correctly identified, sometimes there are two (almost) opposite common meanings, and because those meanings are so different, speakers usually have no problem deciding which of the two is meant.

A sentence like:

John is so sensitive.

On its own doesn't tell us whether the speaker likes or dislikes this trait of John's. However, with a bit of context, everything should be clear:

Be careful when criticizing John; he may start crying, he's so sensitive.
vs
John was really nice when I told him about my divorce. He's so sensitive.

The same thing happens with, for example, cool: when we say someone is cool, she may be cold and hard, or she may be very nice. Again, it all depends on the context.

Context can be so strong that it can even change the meaning of expressions that do not commonly have two (almost opposite) meanings, usually through use of sarcasm.

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    Well said. When I say "There's a bat in the shed", I'm talking about either the mammal or the equipment, but certainly not both. The question of "conflation" doesn't arise. – Tushar Raj Jun 10 '15 at 11:18
  • @TusharRaj: and the mammal may be a small winged creature, or your mother-in-law, although opinions about conflation of those two may vary. – oerkelens Jun 10 '15 at 11:20
  • Oh yeah! Thin ice there. I'm not gonna walk :) – Tushar Raj Jun 10 '15 at 11:21
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We have sensitive meaning "attuned to the feelings of others" and sensitive meaning "apt to have hurt feelings with little or no cause" but the latter (in my dialect, at least) is almost always accompanied by an adverb (e.g. "too" or "so" or "overly") or by a tone of voice, or a meaning look, that indicates "I'm speaking euphemistically, but you know very well what I mean, too sensitive, thin-skinned to the point that you have to be walking on eggshells."

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