Matt Gemmell

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First world problems

personal & culture 5 min read

Most of us have heard the phrase “first world problem”.

It’s used in situations where the speaker is (often humorously) responding to someone else’s complaint, and sees the given ‘problem’ as the product of a substantial level of privilege.

It’s a dismissive statement, saying that the complaint isn’t really valid, or worth worrying about. I have mixed feelings about that. I’d like to briefly talk to you about it.

This article itself is a meta first world problem, I suppose. I have no issue with pointing out needless complaining to raise self-awareness. I’m also naturally in favour of being more conscious of privilege. Those of us who live in relatively safe, secure, wealthy countries - and social groups like men who enjoy universally preferential treatment in our culture - do desperately need to see the world from other points of view.

But dismissiveness is a different matter. As always, there are different ways to approach a situation where you believe that another’s complaint is unwarranted in some way. You can be flippant and play for the cheap laughs, or you can use empathy as a bridge to education. You can even just be silent, which is a rare skill that I’ve yet to master with any consistency.

I think that the main question to ask is: Is this actually relevant, or am I just exposing something of myself instead? That’s what dismissiveness usually does, as well as perhaps injuring someone’s feelings: it tells them about you.

It also ignores the fact that each of us lives in a given social context, and not in some fictional wider world.

For the moment, sadly, there will always be someone in a far worse situation. Someone is poor, and someone is starving, and someone is dying. It’s a tragedy, and I think that it probably preys on your privileged conscience as much as it does on mine. I also know that that very despair is perhaps the greatest privilege of all.

But let’s step back for a moment and remember the context. Yes, you can say: Matt, don’t take it so seriously - people are just kidding around. “First world problem” is almost never meant to cause real grief. In the majority of cases, you’re absolutely right.

But you can make the same argument about the original complainer. They’re implicitly filtering their grievance based on their own daily reality. People will complain about leaving home without an iPhone charger only when that’s a significant event in their day. If you take away their shelter, food and clean water, you’re not going to have the opportunity to point out a first world complaint, because you’re not going to hear any. That’s just how humans behave: we adapt to our context.

Should we be more mindful of others who are less fortunate? Of course. No-one’s going to argue with that. Should we be more grateful, and complain less about trivialities? Certainly. Should we try to keep a sense of perspective? No question about it. We’re all agreed.

What we can’t do, though, is stop reacting to what’s going on in our lives. We’re complex creatures, and complaining serves a multitude of purposes - only some of which are related to grievance. We might want to vent because we’re experiencing unpleasant emotions, or to invite sympathy or support, or even just to brag under the guise of dissatisfaction.

They’re not all noble purposes, I grant you, but they all have a legitimate function in our society. They grease the wheels of social interaction, inform us about others, and they can even inform us about ourselves.

Complaining about first world problems definitely falls into that last category, but so does dismissiveness.

Dismissive behaviour is usually a mask for envy, moral outrage, character judgement, prejudice of some kind, or even the speaker’s own state of stress. Those are all understandable as reasons for an emotional response. They’re just not excuses.

The dismissed person feels judged, but the dismissive one also needs to take a long, hard look at themselves. It’s a dangerous thing to appoint yourself as the judge of another person’s problems, and whether they really ‘count’ or not.

That’s the kind of thinking that caused mental health care to be marginalised for so many decades: the idea that it could be a lot worse, so by extension you should just pull yourself together and get on with it. It’s a systemic failure of empathy.

Now, that’s taking it to extremes, most definitely. There’s a gulf of experience between mental health problems and forgetting your iPhone charger. But it’s such a corrosive attitude to casually disregard and disdain whatever someone else is complaining about. There’s a thread of sociopathy to it.

So, some perspective. Let’s not stop kidding around. I’ve pointed out first world problems on many occasions, and I’ll no doubt keep doing so. Sometimes I’ll do it insensitively. Sometimes I’ll be a dick about it. I acknowledge my failures of the past, present and future, and you can judge my words on that basis. I’m no paragon of empathy, and you’d be a fool to think otherwise.

Playful humour (and even the cruel kind, probably) also has a vital function in our society. I acknowledge that too. But it’s still a matter of context; a matter of appropriateness of time and place.

I think that the “first world problem” retort is one that has a more-than-average tendency to be used inconsiderately. That’s my feeling. Perhaps you feel differently, but then that’s my whole point, isn’t it?

There are just some things that tend to be used destructively. I know all about that, given the hundreds of thousands of times that my “what have you tried?” article has been used as a door-slam to people looking for programming help on web forums and mailing lists all over the internet. I feel a lot of shame about that. The extent of the dismissive use of links to the piece spawned so much discussion itself that I felt compelled to reply and apologise. Remember how I said I wasn’t the shining example for you to follow?

I should have been more aware that anything that engenders a feeling of righteous superiority will inevitably be used as a vector for abuse of those perceived as less worthy. That’s a profound lesson. Maybe I was a bit slow to learn it.

I think we’re talking about essentially the same thing here. “What have you tried?” makes a reasonable and useful point, if you read it for what it is. The problem is, it’s not worded to take context into account. The context in this case is someone faced with *sigh* yet another “clueless” question, and why can’t everyone have as much programming experience as they do, and they’ve had just about enough, damn it.

That’s a human context. It’s far more useful as a planning and moderating mechanism than some artificial, academic, purely didactic fictional wonderland where nobody has deadlines, or even feelings. That’s not the world we live in, and I for one wouldn’t want to.

So I’m not trying to preach to you here; far from it. On the contrary, I’m presenting a personal mea culpa as an example of something I think we’ve all done from time to time, when we probably (unintentionally) injured someone. I don’t want to over-egg this, and I know it’s already too late for that, but I think you understand what I’m saying.

I’m going to keep pursuing awareness - of myself, my privilege, and the possible mind-worlds of others, as unknowable as they are. I’m going to keep pursuing empathy, and above all a simple awareness of context. I’ll try to moderate myself accordingly, and please do tell me when I inevitably fuck up.

Maybe it’s something for you to consider too. And in the worse case, we can always just stay silent.

Now there’s a lesson more of us should learn.

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