October 2, 2015


Why the phrase 'first world problem' is condescending to everyone : It's not just a comical apology for trivial moaning and an enjoyable internet meme - there's also something darker going on (Steven Poole,  2 October 2015, The Guardian)

So there I was, bashing out a hot take on my MacBook Air on a sunny terrace, when I took a sip of my takeaway coffee and my heart sank. The barista had put milk in it. That ruined my whole morning. What a terrible world. But I know, right? First world problem!

The phrase "first world problem" is these days used as a comical apology for moaning about trivia. It is also an enjoyable internet meme, with a dedicated subreddit. (I particularly liked "The Wi-Fi at the luxury Greek villa my wife and I are staying at only supports 4 devices at a time", and the rather subtle: "I want to order pizza, but it is too early and I don't want to be judged by my doorman.") [...]

Like many things, "first world problems" has a different force depending on whether you are applying it to yourself or throwing it in someone else's face. If, at the end of an irate tirade about how my Kenyan coffee beans were over-roasted by the artisanal torréfacteur, I append the phrase "first world problem" with some wry rearrangement of my face muscles, I signal that I know this is just one of the minor frustrations of a very fortunate life. To pre-emptively concede that my problem is just a first world one is to ostentatiously check my privilege before anyone else tells me to do so. At the same time, I remind myself and everyone in earshot that we are indeed living in the "first world". So it is also a humblebrag.

Such privilege-checking becomes a more violent intervention when demanded by someone else. If, after listening to your pathetic account of how your Uber cab took a whole 10 minutes to arrive, I respond "first world problem", then I am aggressively staking out the moral high ground and portraying myself (almost certainly dishonestly) as someone who only ever worries about the plight of starving children. Naturally, our powers of sympathy are limited and we all conduct psychic triage on the sufferings of others. But when "first world problem" is just a mealy mouthed way of saying "shut up", it sounds distinctly compassion-free.

Whoever uses it, though, it's arguable that the phrase "first world problems" is condescending and dehumanising to literally everyone on the planet. 

Which reminds us of an archetypal first world problem, worrying that your joke is actually impacting a Third Worlder's quality of life.

Posted by at October 2, 2015 7:30 PM

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