I attended a party last weekend. Making characteristically crap small talk, I mentioned to a male guest that my train had been so late that I hadn’t had a chance to eat before coming out, and to holler if he spotted a nibbles tray because I was bloody starving. He laughed and said rather sneerily, “Talk about First World Problems! Some people have to go for days without food!”
He was possibly just socially awkward, but I was interested in his reaction. I hear and see #FirstWorldProblems (sometimes known as “White Whine”) everywhere these days. It started on social media as a knowing, self-deprecating comment on the relatively insignificant gripes of modern British and American life, a tongue-in-cheek, pre-emptive apology for one’s own “My diamond shoes are too tight” type posts. The hashtag updates almost every second of the day.
It’s the modern day version of your parents telling you off for not gobbling down grey cabbage leaves and rubbery liver when “children in Ethiopia would kill for them”.
Quickly though, “First World Problems” became a snarky retort by social media users in order to dismiss another human’s experience as irrelevant and invalid, shaming them publicly for being spoilt (one Christmas Eve, I saw a woman on Twitter get spammed with ridiculing FWP replies because she’d dared despair that her family’s entire Christmas dinner was cancelled due to a failed Ocado delivery). Designed to belittle and mock, it’s a wearying shorthand accusation of selfishness and blinkered stupidity, levelled at anyone with a problem deemed too unimportant and privileged to air. It’s the modern day version of your parents telling you off for not gobbling down grey cabbage leaves and rubbery liver when “children in Ethiopia would kill for them”.
Obviously a little perspective and a degree of self-awareness is a good thing. Someone I knew once told me, with tears in his eyes, that his father had clearly never loved him because he’d bought him an inferior set of golf clubs for an upcoming holiday. My sympathy was minimal, my giggles barely contained. And if I were publicly whinging that my caviar was too round then I’d hope someone would give me a little talking to. Gratitude, too, is important, and to take stock of what you do have, as opposed to what you don’t, is an exercise that is always worthwhile. But it’s a stupid mistake to use any yardstick to judge the unmathematical, irrational and wholly subjective matter of human emotion. Problems aren’t relative, and to pop each of them onto some imagined scale of validity to determine how we should feel about them is bonkers.
If your house has been burgled and your personal space violated, should you quit your moaning when there are starving people in the world? Is someone with debilitating depression less entitled to sadness than someone who loses a leg? And is someone who loses a leg less deserving of grief than someone whose husband has died? Of course not. Events and lives are different, feelings are universal but contextual, and they never need to be justified to anyone. A virus wiping out the hard drive on your £800 Apple laptop, or your nice car conking out en route to your annual family holiday, is not made a smaller deal by a house-flattening hurricane on the other side of the world. Everything could be better, everything could be worse.
Problems aren’t relative, and to pop each of them onto some imagined scale of validity to determine how we should feel about them is bonkers.
Besides, if anywhere was designed for inconsequential waffle, it’s social media. Clearly, no one in their right mind thinks that the ongoing lack of a cheese emoji is a genuine cause for meltdown, but it’s exactly the kind of niggle that one might mention during an office tea break or in the pub, and so is perfect Twitter fodder, along with a billion other trivial annoyances that are of no consequence outside an idle natter. It’s important to remember that fully-functioning humans are perfectly capable of knowing the difference between life-affecting and life-limiting without being scolded by strangers looking to take them down a peg.
Of course, the most irritating aspect of all this is that when someone accuses you of airing First World Problems, you’re not even the real butt of the joke – those in developing countries are (not to mention all the British people currently fishing food banks to meet their basic needs). While attempting to call out your lack of perspective, what online critics are actually doing is assuming that people in other parts of the world are consumed entirely by matters of life, death and disaster when in fact, the venting of minor frustrations is a universal human impulse. Does anyone really think that a woman in Malawi is so different from them that she never gets pissed off with her snoring husband or irritating neighbours, or that some kid in Paraguay is so deprived of civilisation that he couldn’t possibly know the frustration of a dropped internet connection? The assumption that the lives of non-white, non-Western people can be reduced to one of primitive suffering and abject woe is offensive, spectacularly condescending and mortifyingly stupid.
So next time I moan about my Louboutin falling underneath a train as I jump aboard (yes, this actually happened), or my non-terminal illness, or about my stolen phone, save me the #FirstWorldProblem retort. Because it’s daft, rude, and reflects more poorly on you than me. I don’t need my thoughts and momentary concerns to be passed through some internet quality-assurance process so their validity can be determined by strangers, and nor do you. Say what’s on your mind and damn the internet police. Still, I’d better bite my tongue now. Because what am I doing moaning about bad manners when I have two healthy kids and running water, right? I don’t know I’m born.