Seriously, Stop Saying “First World Problems”

There is a scene in the movie Lion where Nicole Kidman follows around the house a young boy she and her husband in Australia have just adopted from India. He pauses in front of the TV and she leans over him and sounds it out, “Tel-evis-ion. Do you know what a television is?”

The Weinstein Company

It’s a bonkers thing to say. If not exactly racist, at least sheltered all the way up. Of course he knows what a television is. Teaching him the word in English is one thing, but to assume he’s never seen a TV because he is from India? It’s cringeworthy.

But I understand.

A lot of us that grew up in what we were taught was the “First World,” got the impression that there are those of us that have things and know how to use them, and then everyone else basically walks everywhere and is stuck wearing the championship Tshirts of whoever lost the Super Bowl. Things over there are just more simple. Even if where the line between first and third world is a mystery, well, you’ve seen movies. It’s like living in the past, or something.

Even as you grow up and learn that the world is not so simply divided between a first and third place finish, the instinct to view the issues you face as unique to your corner of the planet run deep.

The term first world problem entered public consciousness back around 2005 as a way to shame trivial complaints. Shortly after catching on as a meme, it morphed into a way to justify those grievances by at least acknowledging some people, somewhere might see it as silly. I acknowledged it, now please sympathize with me with a like or a retweet.

The problem is, like Nicole Kidman’s character in Lion, we have no idea just how common our lives actually are. That even within developing countries where poverty is a more widespread issue, there is an enormous spectrum of lived, daily realities. And being poor doesn’t mean you don’t experience similar inconveniences.

Would you walk up to someone living in a tent under a highway in your city and say, “Ugh, the sheets on my bed were really scratchy last night and I couldn’t sleep. Oops! That’s a people-who-live-in-houses problem!” Of course not. Setting aside how bizarre that would be, he understands what an uncomfortable bed is like.

Somehow we still retain the habit of viewing our annoyances as these odd badges of honor that separate us. I lived for several years in rural Honduras, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and learned a lot about just how complementary our daily problems are.

It may surprise you, but folks in developing countries have cell phones and take selfies just as much as you do. Believe me. And their front-facing cameras go out of focus or they struggle to find a charger that matches their phone. Those aren’t first world problems. They are just problems.

Their air conditioning units go out for days and the toilet paper can be perilously thin. You know they have toilet paper outside the US, right? The translucent stuff is an issue everywhere.

Complaining that your heated seats went out in your car or the line at Starbucks is too long might be specific to your suburb, but it isn’t a byproduct of your wealth.

The humble-brag that is claiming a first world problem only reinforces the superiority complex too many of us are taught as children. To say this is my wealthy person problem of the day is really just to say, Reminder: I’m rich.

It creates divisions where there needn’t be any — dehumanizing the rest of the world by reducing them to their problems. A more honest approach would just be to say, “My UberEATS driver is late, but at least I don’t have malaria!”

Because that is what we mean by it, right? We are so clueless to the real world that we imagine one where there only troubles in another country must be exhaustive in scale. Beyond the reach of our imagination to picture a day in the life.

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This reduction of poor, developing countries to their problems — and specifically, problems the rest of us never deal with — is a good part of what leads to the domineering and dismissive attitudes so many of us have towards our neighbors. If they really are no more than disease and civil war and destitution, then why not control —ahem, I mean help — them? Why not create policies here at home that negatively affect poorer countries? A one dimensional neighbor is easy to dismiss. America first, and all.

It is past time to retire first world problems. Now is an age when we need to be highlighting our connections, our humanity. Let’s leave behind our instinct to create fake divisions.