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Demystifying the Idea of ‘First World Problems’

Demystifying the Idea of ‘First World Problems’

A few years ago, I started noticing a disturbing trend. The ‘First World Problems’ meme was making the rounds and then suddenly it was everywhere. People would complain about their phone breaking, and then deride themselves for making such a ‘first world’ complaint. Their clothes were out of date or not fitting right? Shut up, elitist! Complain about not having enough sugar in their coffee, and someone would invariably let them know that, “people are starving in the Congo; really that’s not a problem.”

Do our phones don’t break in Africa? Does our coffee doesn’t matter to us here? Do people in Asia not care about style? I can assure you, our daily grievances aren’t that far from yours. 

The perpetuation of this ludicrous stereotype, that the third world poor folk are ‘happy with nothing,’ is absolutely wrong. It assumes that most of us are uneducated and illiterate, while simultaneously doling out Uncle Tom levels of racism. Look at those happy Africans, satisfied with their cholera-ridden brown water.

While there is absolute and staggering poverty in a number of developing nations, undermining the day to day life of an average citizen doesn’t do anybody any good. It’s false liberalism to claim that in your blessed life, it’s only you and your ilk too lazy to grab the remote.

It assumes that none of the poor, mud-hut dwelling –but don’t forget the heart of gold – folk on the other side of the world would even know the meaning of leisure time. That we wouldn’t sit down after a long day of work and want to watch Game of Thrones with our friends, and then be irritated by leaving the computer cord in the other room. No, that sort of obvious human annoyance only belongs to the West. It is only with superior wealth and services that one could ever take issue with the smaller things in life.

What most fail to realize is that the wealth in both Asia and Africa has been rising steadily for a number of years. Meanwhile, wealth and the middle class in the West has been undergoing a bit of a, erm, renovation. Before taking the time out of your life of being a ‘very good liberal’ and remarking on how bad things are across the oceans, it would behoove you to remember that Angola gave a loan to Portugal, their former colonialists, when Portugal fell on hard times.

The African Middle Class is on the rise, and with it comes smartphones, ipads and laptops. When you visit the coffee houses in Lagos, in Kigali, in Dar es Salaam, most of the people there working hard on their computers are Africans. Most of the people ordering coffee are Africans. They are not some super-wealthy subset either, just average people with normal jobs.

They go home to their normal apartments and relax watching popular TV shows. People across the globe, outside of the freedom-loving West, delight in playing a game of pool with friends in a pub after work, drinking a beer, or watching a soccer match. Look how they rise above! How wonderful for them!

The notion that people in developing nations are grateful for every single thing they’re given in life is also a misnomer. Students in major universities here often struggle with the notion of remaining in their dorms to study, or heading out on the town to hang out with friends.

Interviewing one young Ugandan student, who sat in her dorm room flipping between Glee and What Not to Wear, she waxed on about how she needed to get to her economics exam, but a huge party was going down nearby, so in all likelihood she’d spend her evening picking out a dress to wear. Students here put off their exams, and sometimes, despite coming from ‘nothing,’ they still fail their classes. Why? Because they are humans.

This is one of the main disturbing tropes that the ‘First World Problems’ meme sets up. It assumes that basic human issues only exist for those in the West. Those who are privileged with easy lives and good roads can understand the basic irritants of human existence, but those from poorer circumstances can only focus on the real, more noble issues facing humanity. Assuming such things not only erases those who have worked hard to live a nice, middle class life, but also manages to romanticize poverty at the same time. Bravo indeed.

The reality is, most lives across the world are just a series of everyday tasks. Going to the supermarket, getting milk, pumping water, washing clothes, going to work. It’s mundane and normal, and in the mundane and normal, common irritants are bound to occur. Yes, some issues in the developing world are bigger than those that occur normally within the context of the west. However, it doesn’t take incredible privilege or incredible wealth to be tired, stressed or grumpy about the minor everyday struggles of life.

Rather, it is in such things that we find our common humanity and humor. So instead of worrying about if what you’re saying sounds like a ‘First World Problem,’ just relax and know that in cities across the world, the cookie that came with our latte is also dry, and we’re complaining about it too.

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57 comments

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4:56PM PDT on Jul 28, 2014

Aww, chillax Lisabeth, "First world problems" means stop whining about trivial annoyances when other people in the world are suffering from bombs going off right outside their front door, or girls in rural communities can't go to school because they have to walk to a well to get water for their families. We understand that there are plenty of well-off people in other countries, but overall, people in first world countries tend to have fewer hazards constantly in their lives...

4:46PM PDT on Jul 28, 2014

We all have problems, get used to it. I believe food, water, and safe shelter are much more important than sugar in coffee.

5:47PM PDT on Jun 10, 2014

I honestly think first world problems are a great thing.

I don't think anyone should deride themselves for it (though stupid complaints are still stupid). I think a good thing will be when the poorest child in the poorest part of the world's worst complaint is that the wifi is blocked by the cat.

12:46AM PDT on Apr 30, 2014

Best not to take the whole thing too seriously. It's just another internet meme.

8:55PM PDT on Apr 29, 2014

I agree with others who have said there's something wrong with the article. (1) It begins pointing out the widely differing conditions in which people live depending on what seems more like the state of technological advances. It chastises people who have those perks and still get irritated at what could be minor problems BUT then goes on to say some people in those places less technologically advanced do get the perks and then get irritated over similar minor irritations or get to indulge in the small luxuries of the ones who have the technological advances in the countries where seemingly you are supposed to have them... what is the point? To tell you that once some people "rise" to the level of getting the technological advances they will behave as those that had them for a longer time... What on earth is the point?
I agree with David's second paragraph.

8:37PM PDT on Apr 29, 2014

I will make sure I call problems trivial or petty instead of First World.

I'd also point out that a homeless person in the U.S. has a very real chance of being the victim of violent abuse; that people have to choose between paying rent and buying medicine; that the food banks don't have enough to give to the people who need assistance not starving, so people in America may rummage through grocery store dumpsters for food. Not all people in the First World are immune to life-threatening poverty.

4:59PM PDT on Apr 29, 2014

Completely missing the point. "First world problems" is just another version of this quote:
"I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet".

4:22PM PDT on Apr 29, 2014

Actually, Lisa, that's a slightly counterproductive comment to make in itself. It makes the assumption that one person from a minority group represents the opinions and feelings of the entire minority group, which is sort of a racist premise. It also dehumanizes her - you are basically saying that we should not disagree with or argue with her just because of where she is from or the (assumed) colour of her skin. If some people here think that she had missed the point of the first world problems meme, then those people shouldn't be laughed at or silenced any more than she should be laughed at or silenced for her opinion. Understanding doesn't come from any one group conceding to another group 'just because' of that group's status... THAT is how the very oppression we fight against begins. Understanding comes from dialogue and discussion. (While I am quite privileged myself in many ways, I am also a Hispanic queer immigrant, in case anyone wants to jump on me for speaking over minority groups).

4:14PM PDT on Apr 29, 2014

Cracks me up how many people on this thread are complaining that this Ugandan writer is wrong in her article. Oh, the irony of THAT "first world problem"! "That darned Ugandan just doesn't GET me when I deal in stereotypes!"

3:50PM PDT on Apr 29, 2014

wow! never heard or have seen this meme. I watch cat videos.... ;)

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