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What your Zoom background says about you

By Sandeep Goyal
September 21, 2020 10:24 IST
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Is there no 'normal' background?
Sure there is,' notes ad guru Sandeep Goyal.

IMAGE: The painting attracted more screen-time interest than the subject of the 'call'. Kindly note the image has been posted only for representational purposes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Polina Zimmerman/

I had barely used Zoom a few times before the pandemic.

So, when asked to join a 'call', it did not naturally occur to me that we were not going to be on an actual conference call -- on the phone.

I wasn't expecting to be on camera in a video meeting.

I wasn't ready, my 'background' wasn't ready, and I was kind of caught off-guard.

I quickly fetched my laptop, and settled into our living room sofa.

The laptop camera caught a small Paresh Maity painting on the wall behind me.

The chat box started to pile up with "oohs", "aahs" and "wows" about the Maity.

The painting attracted more screen-time interest than the subject of the "call".

I actually didn't know whether to feel flattered by all the attention my "background" had attracted or to feel embarrassed for having become an inadvertent eyeball grabber.

Ever since, I have become more careful, and observant.

Not only about my own Zoom background, but the ones used by others.

The winner-all-the-way, without an iota of doubt, amongst backgrounds, virtual or real, is the library background.

Rows of neatly stacked books.

To make you look scholarly, cerebral and well-informed.

The background that instantly communicates to all that you have read the original book on which the currently trending Netflix series, is based on!

Ninety per cent of library backgrounds, by the way, are fake.

So, you can display books on a subject you want to brag about -- cetology, enzyme kinetics, environmental acoustics or ethnomusicology -- supposedly your favourite bedtime and niksen readings!

Ninety per cent of the real library backgrounds have carefully curated close-up views of Shakespeare, Byron, Haruki Murakami titles and those of last year's Nobel prize winners, Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke, so you know that the person on the call is really erudite, and has really evolved reading tastes.

The next most favoured background, surprisingly, is the bare-wall look, intended to communicate 'minimalist' (bordering evolved) tastes.

Also, that the participant is self-confident, matter-of-fact, no-nonsense and very business-like.

This I am told is the 'usual' Harvard/Stanford/ Wharton background meant to convey, 'I am I'. Period.

An 'outdoorsy' background, interestingly, has started to be accorded kind of second-grade status.

"It is seriously wannabe stuff", warned my 24-year-old nephew, "especially if you have actually not been to Lake Tahoe or the Uyuni Flats in Bolivia but are showing them in the background. The ones who know, snigger."

So what's the choice, I asked? Emulate Elon Musk.

Have the galaxy or the Milky Way kind of stretching behind you.

Cues vastness (of ambition), open-mindedness, out-of-the-box thinking and infinity.

*IMAGE: You can display books on a subject you want to brag about. Kindly note the image has been posted only for representational purposes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Wendy Wei/

Of the real backgrounds, the universal favourite, by far, is the one with a pet (dog 52 per cent, puppy 28 per cent, cat 20 per cent) comfortably snoozing on the sofa behind.

And if the puppy wakes up, stretches, jumps off the sofa and goes out of frame during the course of the call, that is a straight 100 per cent bonus.

The pet signals (a) loving (b) loving (c) loving.

And, loving equals warm, friendly, compassionate, empathetic and trustworthy.

This is the best gig in town.

What about an actual untidy, unkempt real home with kids' toys, some dirty linen and unwashed mugs and plates carelessly str­e­wn around in the background?

Mixed feedback, really on that.

In the first week of the pandemic, it was labelled cute.

But post that the assessment simply pivoted to, "Bah! He doesn't even help around the house? Terrible!"

And then there is the much-in-vogue 'enigmatic' background.

The Lochinvar sword hanging on the wall just behind.

Cutting-edge decision-maker or just plain dangerous?

An Ogata Kenzan pot on the far bureau? Aesthetic, yes.

But vain. The Steinway piano (usually virtual), on the other hand, makes for someone who is agreeable, pleasant and easy to get along with.

A Saraswati veena seen in the background points to a sanskari persona.

And a big Harley vrooming in the background is representative of someone signalling 'my way or the highway'. Avoidable, for sure.

What about the huge Ganesha in the background?

No, no, no.

Religious symbols, especially with overseas colleagues in attendance on the call, is a strict no-no.

But a glimpse during the recent Ganapati festival, just to show your deity to friends and colleagues?

The answer is still no.

And yes, a neat bouquet of flowers in the background?

Verdict: Cheerful, accommodating, positive.

A black background?

Well, that's a tough one.

Mean negotiator.

Doesn't give an inch.

Not to be trusted.

Is there no 'normal' background? Sure there is.

For the fuddy-duddy, non-tech savvy 50 year old whose kitchen you can clearly see (indicating concurrently that the call is being made from the dining table) with constant movements by the missus and pressure cooker sounds too.

Well, this is a sure candidate for the pink slips being handed out these days aplenty ... poor chap simply misunderstood the cryptic HR missive,'Background check negative'.


Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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Sandeep Goyal
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