First-World Problems

When I couldn’t think of a solution to a problem I had, I posted the problem on Facebook. I knew I’d get interesting, odd, weird, smart, funny, and wise answers. It wasn’t a big problem, but I wanted to get out of my own head, so Facebook seemed like a good crowdsourcing solution. Other people’s perspectives can really wake you up.

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 11.18.15 AMAnd one of them did. “No disrespect, but ‘first-world problem’,” he wrote. My eyes rolled. Whenever someone says, “No disrespect” it means, “I’m about to be deliberately disrespectful, but  because I said ‘no disrespect’ first,  you  should suck up whatever I dish out, and if you do get angry, I can accuse you of not having a sense of humor.”  Sort of like “Bless your heart,” or the little winky-face emoji. That kind of passive-aggressive behavior never sits well with me.

I first heard the term about three years ago and at first thought it was funny. There are so many things to be grateful for in a normal life. Small problems plus drama creates big problems. But even small problems need to be solved, and often throwing money at it is not an option, so the solution demands time, effort, money, or luck that you don’t have. Generally at exactly the time you don’t have an excess of what you need.

I might as well say to someone who is stuck in a snowstorm, “non-desert problem. If you lived here, you wouldn’t have that problem.”

Lovely stream next to a nice greenway. Except, it's a sewage canal.

Lovely stream next to a nice greenway. Except, it’s a sewage canal.

We live in the first world. Inconveniences cost time and money, both of which can send a ripple into our lives. Our problems are our problems, it doesn’t matter which world owns them, we live in a certain time and place, and it doesn’t matter that the problem is first, second, or third world. It’s still a problem that requires a solution or, worse, several solutions involving cooperation.

Here’s an example: I dropped a tube of lipstick, which falls into the open toilet. The lipstick tube in the toilet couldn’t be pulled out by hand, and I don’t have a snake, so I had to call a first-world plumber and not use the toilet, which created a third-world living condition.

When someone did use the toilet, it flooded, pouring sewage on my floor, soaking into the bath mat. So, sewage in the house: third-world problem. Plumber who cost $125, first-world problem. Someone who had to stay home and wait for the plumber: another first-world problem. Fouled bath mat: lucky I have a washer and dryer, so, second-world solution.

I washed the mat and hung it outside to dry–nice third-world solution. Then aScreen Shot 2015-01-24 at 12.26.49 PM bird pooped on it, but that’s a third-world problem again, so I washed it again, wasting first-world water and first world-time. Birds poop in all worlds.

Dizzy yet? Me, too. Saying “first world problem” has nothing to do with the size of the problem. What it really means is, “this is trivial to me, and you should not let this bother you at all.” Who gets to judge that? One person’s inconvenience is another’s big deal.

And who are we to think first-world problems, the ones that are solved by first-world solutions, are trivial?  First-world conveniences, for which I am hugely grateful, and would not want to live without, include shots so you don’t get shingles, smallpox or polio. Electricity, central heat and cooling, paved roads, a system that brings food to my grocery store, mail to my door, and the internet to my computer. And yet each of those solutions has inherent problems of waste, pollution and costs. First-world problems.

Calling the plumber, and tossing the stinky mats into the washer cost me time and required me to change my outfit, which got sewage dripped on it. The change made me run into heavier traffic, and arrive late to a teaching gig, to face an unhappy client, who fired me. (This actually happened. One of those “no excuses, take responsibility, you should have gotten up half an hour earlier in case you dropped your lipstick in the toilet and had to call a plumber and got sewage on your jacket” clients.) Still trivial? Only if I don’t care about the money. Or if have lots of clients to replace the one I lost.

We live in the first world. We all have first-world problems. Perhaps we should be grateful for them, and glad we manage to get enough food on the table. Losing that client made a significant difference in my income for several months. No, I did not starve. But the ripples were worth more than a shrug.

At first I, too, thought “first-world problem” was clever. A way to remind people how lucky they are. But after thinking it over, I’m not going to use it again, not to describe someone else’s problems. Because you don’t know what world they are in at the moment.

-Quinn McDonald lives in the first world with all-world problems.

42 thoughts on “First-World Problems

  1. Quinn – just catching up on your posts – this is a fantastic piece – thanks for reminding us of what to be grateful for – and to not judge the other guy when s/he complains about his/her world.

  2. Quinn,
    I’m sorry to hear of your plumbing problem, but I must say that your descriptive story had me laughing a bit. Especially the dizzy part. Yes, all issues touch us in one way or the other (inconvenience, cost, and decision making). Thanks for sharing in your trademark way: thorough, true and funny where appropriate. (Sorry about the lost client.)

    Have a centering evening.
    Be refreshed,

  3. What a disrespectful answer! Someone not suffering from cancer can say to someone who is complaining of the pain of chemo or radiation, “First world problem.” Dismissive behavior is one of the hallmarks of the self-involved. I’m getting terribly tired of people who see everyone else’s conversation as a reason to go for one-upmanship.

  4. In my country, to begin a comment in the way as mentioned here is merely a vorm of politeness. The person does not want to offend the other person. Nothing more nothing less.

    • Here, “No offense, but” is a way to signal that the person who used that term knows it might be offensive to the person they are speaking to. It’s also a way to excuse bad behavior. I suggest they think about what they say first. Had this person said, for example, “this sounds trivial to me.” I’d be fine with it. That’s his opinion.

  5. we are lucky to be in the first world. My brother lives in the third world, and his problems are HUGE! grande mal epilepsy and expensive drugs, only one eye, due to retinal detachment unable to be fixed…both machines on the island broken. he is presently building an adobe bread oven to bake his own bread. No washing machine, has to depend on a friend to wash his clothes. and No city water, either! only an above ground stone tank his only water supply. to get water to the house, there is an overhead pressure tank and an electric pump..that is,when the electricity is on…we skype, which is good, no cot. but if the power is off, no skype!

  6. So much nodding at this end! yes yes, to a lot of the comments and the gist of your post. And the other phrase I really don’t like: “with all due respect” which means none at all! and is followed by insulting comments..there are people out of my life now because of that sort of treatment. Sigh.

    I only use the term first world to describe my own exaggerated responses to problems caused by or around my technology. To apply it to other people is, well, disrespectful!

    • Yep. You can always do that to yourself, just as you can call yourself names, but that doesn’t give anyone else permission to. The other thing in this case was that I was asking for suggestions, I didn’t say it was a problem, just interested in what other people might think and do. To label it as a “first world problem” is labeling it something that it wasn’t to begin with.

  7. My observation is more mundane than the others’, to the effect that your description of the ensuing chain of problems reminded me of a Rube Goldberg machine. One long, intricate series of problems started by a simple, seeming innocuous action.

    • Which is pretty much how life goes. You get born and then a marble rolls down a runway and you plunk! meet someone who turns out to be your best friend and then that leads you to wonder about something and you major in it in college . . .

  8. Oh my goodness, I couldn’t agree with you more. This is the same as when people who know nothing at all about depression decide to chime in with statements to the effect of, “Get over yourself, there are people with ‘real’ problems out there” or any number of other completely irrelevant, not to mention completely insensitive, comments. To them all I can say is, talk to the hand.

  9. Robert Fulghum, I think, wrote a story about how he learned about differences between inconveniences and problems as a young college student. The quote I most remember (perhaps not perfectly) is “A lump in your oatmeal, a lump in your throat and a lump in your breast are not the same problem. The story is well worth reading. I saved it along with one I remember as “A Ten Cow Wife” but which may have had a different title and re-read them every year or so. Looks like your inconvenience turned into a problem as it went along. I wonder at you client who apparently never has failures of her/his own. What a wonderful world to live in.

  10. Quinn, there are many people who still think diabetes is caused by eating too much sugar. It’s amazing how in this day and age the opportunities for self-education have grown, and yet so few people take advantage of them. I don’t like the “first world problem” or the “no disrespect” phrases either. If a person has a problem, however large or small that problem may appear to others, it is still a problem for that person and must be resolved. Trivializing it will not solve the problem nor will it make it go away. It’s there with the potential to grow into a much larger problem if it isn’t resolved.

    As for the winky-face……..I’m guilty of using those. Mostly aimed at me, and used with my closest friends, in regards to my developing cooking skills (or my major microwave skills), my art and other ares of my life. Having grown up with parents who thought it important to lower their children’s self-esteem, I try to not take things in my creative/cooking/general life too seriously. I will fail at things. It’s human nature to fail once in a while. Unfortunately, to those of us with low self-esteem, one small fail can steam roll into a major lack of confidence problem. But, I will watch myself to make sure the winky eye remains directed about me only, and not a negative towardss anyone else.

    And the filter. I grew up isolated most of the time, the filter over my mouth has a hole in it. Sometimes things fall through that hole unintentionally. I always catch it, after the fact, and mentally scold myself and think, “I really need a larger mouth or smaller feet.” I apologize, but for those who don’t know me that well, or my story, that sometimes isn’t enough. Which is why I much prefer writing over speaking. I can censor myself when I proof-read. It’s difficult to censor myself after the fact when I have both feet in my mouth.

    I love your blog post today. But then, I always love your blog posts and look forward to reading them.

      • You’re welcome late start studio! I know I’m having a good day when I something I say or write makes another person smile or laugh. 🙂

    • I fail all the time. It’s how I learn. I don’t learn from success, that just lets me move on. But failure? Ahhhh, then I have to stop, consider what went wrong, develop a solution and see if that works. I call it “failing up.” I LOVE “the filter over my mouth has a hole in it.” We all have that from time to time.

      • Ugh, just re-read my post and realized I missed a paragraph break or two. oops!

        I’ll have to remember the “failing up” thought. I love it! Now to train myself into thinking that way when things don’t go as planned. 🙂

  11. A huge guffaw when I had this image pop into my head of you holding a live snake yt the tail and sending it off after your lipstick while it protested about the toilet! I wish I was a cartoonist!

    Seriously though . . . the severity of a problem is relative to the environment in which it occurs, First, Second or Third World. And I wonder if the smart arse knows what they actually mean?

    • i love that image of a live snake! I’m sure it would hate that! It was a lipstick that was long, and you applied it with a brush, and they had formed an “X” in the crook of the toilet. Not even a trained snake could handle that. The Plumber’s snake had some kind of camera attached and it made me think of a gastroenterologist’s device.

  12. I have been wondering why you react so strongly to the response of that person on Facebook.. Firstworld problem…for: oh well…just another way to look at things… but then he overlooked one special thing, namely the book to be won is a book written by you, a very personal gift all made by you Quinn!! Not just some random book .

    In the third or second world this situation would have caused the very same feelings of hurt.

    It was not a first-world problem, nor anynumber-world problem, this was about your love and hard work seemingly being forgotten by the winner of the book.

    Maybe the winner is somebody who believes she will never win anything any way, a self fulfilling prophesy about to happen…

    I just LOVE your story about the fallen lipstick tube and everything that happened next!!

    Big hug for you,


    • I love chasing down quotes. Ian MacLaren may have said it (or written it), but Socrates said it first. It has also been attributed to Plato. That makes sense, as Socrates was Plato’s teacher. Socrates believed in asking questions of people to get them to think through to their own answers. He never wrote anything down. After he died, Plato wrote a lot of what Socrates said down, so quotes attributed to Plato were often Socrates’s idea.

  13. Quinn, you speak my language! ‘No disrespect, BUT’ – I hear as ‘no resepect….’ And my defences go up. As with ‘not being funny, BUT…’ Is rarely followed by something ‘funny’.

    Don’t even get me started with ‘I’ll be honest with you…’ Or ‘I’m not gonna lie…’

    • You know who uses “No disrespect”? People who want a cover for their disrespectful remarks. Most often, people with no social filter–they want to say what they feel no matter if it does hurt someone. And bullies. Bullies are big on “you don’t have a sense of humor.”

  14. Amen! And I would include invisible illnesses (fibromyalgia, Lupus, etc) in your last paragraph. Others don’t know what level of pain you’re enduring, so don’t dismiss and trivialize it!

    • As a diabetic (another invisible disease) who is told by people all day long how my disease is “my own fault because of my poor choices” and given alarmingly crazy diet advice in restaurants, you are so right.

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