When something bad happens to someone you care about, a natural response is the desire to comfort them. There are a number of different strategies for doing this, and the longer you know someone, the more you learn about which strategies will be appropriate. What can reliably calm one person down may instead aggravate the problem for another. And when you’re in that situation, on either end, it’s kind of a big deal.
My default strategy for coping with upset people is humor because it’s much harder to be angry or sad if you’re laughing. Still, delivery is an important part of any joke, and it’s important to know your audience. Not everyone enjoys offensive humor; some people love off-color jokes while others
have no sense of humor see them as perversely morbid. It’s generally best not to get those two crowds mixed up, so the safer option often becomes erring on the side of caution. Sometimes overriding the urge to make light of a serious situation can be difficult, but there’s wisdom in not needlessly pissing people off, especially people you’re less familiar with.
Unless you’re the Internet, that is. Many people on the Internat exhibit some strange compulsion to piss people off. (This is often called trolling, but in my experience, people who claim to have been trolling usually are just trying to save face after making idiots of themselves. Or perhaps to piss the other person off even more.)
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Oh, you tripped and broke your iPhone’s screen? Well good, it serves you right for being so clumsy. Maybe this will teach you a valuable lesson. Be more careful next time. Dumbass.
This kind of response has been the traditional asshole reply to bad news on the Intertubes, but I’d like you to notice something: at least this inflammatory response acknowledges that something bad happened. Compare with this sample reply:
First world problems.
Wait, what? That’s it? Only three words? What the—
What’s the deal? Well, those of you who may be unfamiliar with this particular meme should probably do a little light reading about it. I’ve had an interesting relationship with this particular spawn of the Internets. At first, I was amused, but I was faintly uncomfortable with it for a reason I couldn’t quite pinpoint. When the website White Whine was still fairly new, I had a fine time browsing it for laughs, but I quickly grew tired of it and promptly forgot about it. I was recently reminded of it through the magic of social media, and I finally understand the problem with it.
It’s completely fucking stupid.
Let’s overlook, shall we, the fact that someone in the first world is complaining about harmlessly being exposed to stories of other people’s first world problems and address the deeper issue.
If you’re making fun of your own complaints through this meme, then this rant is not aimed at you. You are free to read on, safe in your knowledge that you are superior to the doucheturds who respond to other people in this manner. If you’re posting to Facebook or Twitter that “omg, this store is way too cold after being out in that heat, stupid AC, lol #firstworldproblems,” you’re engaging in self-deprecating humor, and you may be eligible for a gold star for that. Unless you do this sort of thing with a gross regularity, in which case I have to take two gold stars away from you because your inanity is ruining the Innernets.* (The rest of us will thank you for abstaining in the future.)
The rest of you, however, for shame. For shame! You aren’t funny. You’re not even being original. You’re just making things worse. Think about it: something happens to you that upsets you, and someone tells you that you’re wrong to feel upset. “Oh, your grandma died? Stop crying, you sissy. She wasn’t being a productive member of society anyway.” Making the possible exception for people who enjoy off-color humor at socially inappropriate times, this is clearly the wrong thing to say.
Yes, this is an extreme example, but it’s the same kind of message as “First world problems!” The message is “Oh, you broke your iPhone? Wah! Cry me a river. There are starving children in sub-Saharan Africa who would kill for the opportunity to break their iPhones!”
It equates to “I don’t care about your problem because there are bigger problems in the world.”
If you say this, you are an asshole. This is the exact opposite of emotional validation. You are making things worse. Your implicit message is “You are an idiot for thinking of that as a problem.”
“Oh, you’re right. My reaction was entirely unjustified. It turns out my problem doesn’t actually matter. Sorry to have put you through the misery of enduring my foolishness. I’ll try not to do it again”
—No one, ever.
The first world problems thing is representative of a deeper issue: this sort of argument overlooks the fact that we’re not objective agents. We all live our lives as single entities, experiencing life through an entirely subjective lens. We are the products of our environment, and we are affected to varying degrees by things that occur in our lives in a way that is wholly dependent upon our subjective experiences. Noting the independent existence of so-called objectively worse experiences simply does nothing to mitigate feelings another person is currently experiencing.
Unless, like dead baby jokes, you know your audience is receptive to this kind of thing. But don’t press your luck.
Sadly, this kind of misguided approach is endemic. Person A points out a matter of annoyance. Person B, wanting Person A not to be annoyed, tells Person A to chill da fook out. Person A gets angrier. Are you imagining any specific scenario from your own life yet? If not, take a second.
Now that you’ve taken a second and have about a dozen examples of this trope in mind, here’s one of mine. Let’s see if yours matches.
Sexism and sexual harassment.
Who doesn’t love sex? For most people, sexytimes and the pursuit of sexytimes are an enjoyable way to whittle away the time. Sex is fun, flirting is fun, so pursuing these things must also be inherently fun, right? And since women are the more docile sex, it’s the man’s job to initiate attempts at sexytime. Women play hard to get as part of the game, so men have to keep at it until women finally give in.
There’s so much wrong with that crap that I’d need to spend another six thousand words giving it the thorough thrashing it truly deserves. I’ll spare you that and get straight to the point.
When a woman is subject to harassment, the right response is not to tell her that she is wrong to feel violated. It does nothing to note that women have more rights now than they had in the past; the fact that women in generations gone by experienced more harassment does not undo the harm caused by harassment today. You may enjoy it when someone flirts with you, but that enjoyment is conditional. Their conditions may not match yours.
Of course, harassment isn’t entirely a gendered problem. There can be no doubt that men experience it too (I certainly have), but women do see more of it. Regardless of the context, unwanted affection is inappropriate, regardless of whatever creepy fantasy you may have learned from terrible sitcoms. When someone rejects your advances, it is entirely inappropriate to take offense or to continue making advances. It is also entirely inappropriate to rail against the organized attempt to fight back against a culture that implicitly condones this sort of behavior.
The fact that men do not engage in the stereotypical caveman behavior of clubbing women over the head and dragging their acquisitions back to their caves does not mean that the modern problem does not exist. The fact that women are bought and sold as chattel in some parts of the world even today does not mean that women in the West should be forced to endure a constant barrage of unwelcome propositioning.
“Buck it up; other people have it worse than you. Your harassment is a first world problem. It’s so minor that it doesn’t merit attention.”
Go fuck yourself.
It’s such a funny thing, contemporary culture, isn’t it? We live in an age where women are shamed for being sluts while simultaneously being hated for not putting out. The irony seems to be lost on people who buy into this nonsense.
To the first world problem-ers out there, I understand your frustration. People complain about things that seem to be trivialities, but if you disregard someone’s viewpoint, you’re not doing anything to make the problem better. You’re certainly not undoing their complaint. If you really want to stop them from “whining” about it, take a look at the problem itself. Put yourself in their shoes. Try to understand what they’re going through and why they’re reacting to it this way. Ask questions to make sure you understand. Once you do understand, acknowledge this; show that you get it—when they recognize your comprehension, you can have a more open conversation about the problem. Then, if you still think they’re overreacting, you’ll actually be empowered to do something. Instead of giving me another first world problem to complain about, you can help them appreciate that their problem isn’t as big as they think it is.
Or maybe they can convince you that it really is. That’d be cool too.
* If this doesn't look like hyperbole to you, you're ruining the Interwebs too.