Pet Peeve First World Problems

I don’t like when people say “First world problems” dismissively.

I get it: sometimes, people complain about ridiculous things, and it’s fun to make fun of them. I do it too. I like to reference the Mugatu Latte scene from the first Zoolander when I do it, but not always. Sometimes something like this will do:

Kim Kardashian complaining

Khloe makes fun of Kim for complaining

(Both from Buzzfeed).

Even a simple: “I don’t feel sorry for you.”

But the phrase: “First world problems”? It’s always rubbed me the wrong way.

Firstly, third world problems are no joke. I wish everyone only had what would be considered “first world problems”. While it’s fun to tease about first world problems, teasing about (or even thinking about) third world problems is harsh.

Someone’s diamond earring scratched their cell phone: Are you going to talk to them about blood diamonds? If their diamonds are conflict-free, are you going to quiz them on the mining conditions used to produce their cell phones? Those were probably brutal (Supply chain transparency! Supply chain transparency!).

On some level, I’m uncomfortable with the labels “Developed Country” and “Developing Country” – as though a Developed Country doesn’t need to progress, and a Developing Country should/will follow one model of development. “First World” is similar – it derives from a similar concept – that some countries have it good, and some countries have it bad.

The phrase: “First world problems” is political, and implies that the speaker has some education in the first world/third world political model. It’s not only poking fun at the person you speak it to, it’s also condescending, like: “Look, I know about this model. I’m so aware.”

But the model itself is flawed. Knowing it exists is not the same as having thought about it critically.

Use of the phrase seems to accept the model fully – when you use the phrase “first world problems” to dismiss someone’s concern that they’re going to be late for their nail appointment because they scheduled it too close to their yoga class, you’re tacitly accepting the concept that there is a first world and a third world.

I don’t accept that model. While yes, some people have it better than others,¬†there’s lots of poverty in the countries considered “first world”, and lots of wealth in countries considered “third world”. The good life is hardly determined by geographic borders.

When someone’s late to their nail appointment, do you talk to them about¬†the use of forced labour in nail salons? That their first-world problem is actually someone else’s third-world problem, right there in plain sight?

I can guarantee you, though: when someone uses the phrase “first world problems” to dismiss a concern you’ve just raised, they hardly want to get into a conversation with you about flawed political models of inequality (I’ve learned this one the hard way). They’re actually just teasing you that you’re lucky to have a certain kind of concern.

Why they need to introduce a political concept into the conversation to do that, I don’t understand.


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