Every Sunday afternoon, my family get together for a Zoom meeting. The participants, apart from my wife and myself are my two children, their wives and their children, all of whom live far away from us. We talk about the events of the week, interesting movies that we have seen, political events and all sorts of things.
I also use Zoom for my online talks, which became essential following the COVID-19 outbreak. Even with COVID gone, it is convenient to make a ZOOM presentation rather than trudge to the lecture hall.
I sit by a wall filled with photographs and mementoes of all kinds. My children always comment that this is a very drab and static background. They insist that I must move my laptop around and sit in different parts of the house to bring some variety to the background. I resist this because I prefer to use my MacMini with a large screen, which I cannot drag around.
I experimented with the virtual background facility that Zoom provides. This feature allows you to display an image or video as your background during a Zoom meeting, which can provide you with a glitzy background or a professional look for a presentation. With my MacMini, I can use the Virtual Background feature with or without the use of a green screen behind me. Additionally, instead of a static image, the virtual background feature, allows you to select short videos as your virtual background. Just as with a virtual background without a green screen, a video virtual background requires more system resources and thus has higher system requirements (1).
Unfortunately, virtual backgrounds are anything but authentic. It is obvious when someone is using a fake background, even with a green screen and the best technology. A little Google search revealed that people have investigated the implications and impact of virtual backgrounds. Noah Zandan and Hallie Lynch (2) published their findings in an article in the Harvard Business Review. They conclude that if you’re striving for authenticity, trustworthiness, or expertise, a blank wall or virtual scenic background does not offer much in the way of gravitas or sincerity. While displaying a virtual scenic background is certainly a novel use of technology, only 17% of respondents think it translates to helping the speaker himself appear more innovative. Across the board, virtual scenic backgrounds averaged only 7.5% of the vote — suggesting that they’re best saved for your next virtual happy hour, not your next work meeting. Only 22% of the group overall (with men and women responding almost identically) want to see the larger room behind the speaker, including furniture and/or personal items.
An article by Abi Cook, Meg Thompson and Paddy Ross of the Department of Psychology, Durham University, Durham, UK (3) explored the influence of video background, facial expression, and gender on first impressions of trustworthiness and competence. Video background affected trustworthy and competence perceptions with Plants and Book backgrounds scoring highly on both dimensions while the Home and Novelty backgrounds consistently received the lowest ratings.
These findings indicate that first impressions are significantly influenced by contextual visual factors, likely through a top-down, adapted mechanism, therefore video background could differentially impact first impression evaluations compared to in-person meetings. They have demonstrated the influence of video background, facial expression, and gender on first impressions of trustworthiness and competence in a videoconferencing context. As videoconferencing develops into a permanent feature of the professional environment, these findings have lessons for those who regularly use videoconferencing. Overall, these studies demonstrate the power and influence of video background on first impressions, as well as the importance of being able to negate these influences to leave the best first impression possible.
Finally, I decided to create a natural-looking background behind my chair, by painting a mustard field on my wall. The choice of the mustard field was motivated by the predominantly Cadmium yellow background that it needs, which is a pleasant colour. Cadmium Yellow is considered a warm category due to its reddish tinge while Lemon Yellow with its bluish tinge is cooler. Cadmium Yellow is a saturated pigment and covers quite well. The Cadmium pigments held sway over 19th-century painting and influenced the growth of the impressionist movement. The brilliance and opacity of these pigments allowed it to pave the way for the new painterly techniques in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Over-painting allows for immediacy and therefore, spontaneity.
I balanced the bright Cadmium yellow fields with a light blue sky with patches of white clouds. Dividing the two is a stretch of Sap Green shade depicting distant woods.
The shimmering mustard fields are part of the Indian ethos. In rural areas, winters have always been defined by the yellow mustard fields. The mustard field is an image related to the Basant festivals, which is to celebrate spring and love. Though physically confined to the north of India, its pan-Indian acceptance has been promoted by Bollywood movies.
The first film that had mustard field is Upkar (1967) by Manoj Kumar. However, credit goes to Yash Raj movies for romanticising the mustard fields with yellow flowers and billowy winds. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), an iconic film released in 1995, has the couple Simran and Raj fall for each other in the mustard field. Anupama Chopra, a film critic, wrote in her book that the mustard field scene was the heart of the film. That scene became an icon, but for many years, while Punjab remained a famous place, many directors have been trying to find other iconic images for their own.
So, here I am, sitting by my mustard field!
(2) Noah Zandan and Hallie Lynch, June 18, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/06/dress-for-the-remote-job-you-want
(3) Paddy Ross, Durham University: Virtual First Impressions: Zoom backgrounds affect judgements of trust and competence, January 2023, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/367257648