Skeptical vs. Cynical – What’s the Difference? (+Examples)

It’s interesting how some words sometimes are used as if they were the same, when in actuality, they have completely different meanings.

We’ve all seen “Skeptical” and “Cynical” being used interchangeably. But are they the same? And if not, what do they really mean?

Skeptical vs. Cynical – What’s the Difference?

“Skeptical” is the word we use to describe people who aren’t easily convinced, and who keep doubts and reservations about things. “Cynical” refers to people who are deeply distrusting, in a negative way. “Cynical” people usually see and expect the worst in others.

skeptical vs cynical

Take a look at the examples below:

  • John was skeptical of the solution offered.
  • At the beginning of the school year, my teacher was skeptical of me.
  • John was cynical about the solution offered.
  • Don’t be cynical, Anna is telling the truth.

Although both “Skeptical” and “Cynical” refer to an individual’s expectations on life and others, they certainly carry a different tone. The “Skeptical” teacher had some reservations at the beginning of the school year, but not opening up too quickly isn’t necessarily a negative thing.

On the other hand, being “Cynical” indicates the individual completely doubts a positive outcome might occur: when we say John’s “Cynical” about the solution offered, we mean he didn’t believe it, and had a negative approach to it.

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Skeptical

“Skeptical” individuals require evidence for claims that are made to them. They don’t take things at face value, just because someone is saying it.

In fact, the Cambridge Dictionary says that to be “Skeptical” is to doubt something is true or useful. A “Skeptical” person wants to see some signs, or proof, before believing in things completely. It’s the opposite of a sure or gullible person.

Let’s see how to use “Skeptical” in a sentence:

  1. I was skeptical of the cereal, but ended up liking it.
  2. Shane was skeptical about getting a pet until he got his cat.
  3. Janet is a skeptical person, and always does her research.
  4. Wayne is skeptical about the reviews.
  5. You should be skeptical about what you see on TV.

You can tell by the sentences that every individual had initial reservations (or questions), that may or not have been confirmed with time. But being “Skeptical” doesn’t mean the person is negative and doubtful all the time. It only means they like to do their due diligence.

For example, people should be skeptical about what they see on TV. It’s not to say everything on TV is a lie, it’s only to indicate that everyone should check things out and do their own research, before forming an opinion.

Cynical

“Cynical” individuals distrust human sincerity and integrity completely. It’s not about having some reservations here and there. Being “Cynical” indicates that that person continuously doubts people’s motivation, always approaching them with a negative filter.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a “Cynical” person believes that people are only interested in themselves and aren’t sincere.

Take a look at how to use “Cynical” in a sentence:

  1. Pat is a very cynical and hopeless person.
  2. She is very cynical about the finale of the series.
  3. Manny took the cynical approach by believing the TV would never work again.
  4. Knowing Lopez, he’ll be cynical about this situation.
  5. Call me cynical, but I don’t think there’s a solution to this.

There’s a negative connotation every time the word “Cynical” is added to the sentence. Even when used hypothetically, as in “Call me cynical”, it indicates a firm negative approach that goes beyond mere doubts.

In fact, you might hurt someone’s feelings by calling them “Cynical”, because it’s a negative characteristic.

Which Phrase Is Used the Most?

Which one of those two forms is used more often? Take a look at the graph from Google Ngram Viewer below.

skeptical vs cynical english usage

Back in the early 1900’s, “Cynical” was used more than “Skeptical”. While the use of both words have indeed increased over the decades, today, “Skeptical” is used more frequently than “Cynical”.

Perhaps, the reason for it is that “Cynical” is a word with a negative connotation. Consequently, in a politically correct environment, some people might choose to avoid it (and by doing that, also avoid stepping on people’s toes).

Final Thoughts

How harsh you wish to be on your description of someone, or on how you express yourself will determine if the word to use is “Skeptical” or “Cynical”. Anyone with some reservations can be called “Skeptical”. But “Cynical” should be reserved to individuals (or moments) of complete doubt and distrust.