In our digital age, I like to think of Zoom backgrounds as the windows to the soul. Whether you choose a preset image to cover up or opt to bare your true background, you reveal things about yourself that would have likely remained unknown in an in-person meeting. Although lacking in most of what we love about face-to-face conversations, Zoom calls are decidedly intimate in the ways that our personal lives peek through the calls we make.
Almost every Zoom meeting I’ve ever joined has been from my bedroom in my parents’ house or my dorm room in Mather. Alongside my side-swept bangs and camera-ready smile, those I’m meeting with can see the posters on my wall, my pile of vintage clothes, and my cat snoozing on my bed. When on display in the background of my video call, these things become just as much a part of me as the upper half of my body.
Ever since I was old enough to use my allowance money to buy magazines in the supermarket checkout line, my bedroom walls have been plastered in posters. As I taped up, took down, and moved around photos, I was altering my external world to match my internal one. Whether it was concert tickets, Polaroids with friends, or magazine pages, the things I hung on my bedroom walls were like little diary entries.
Recently, I’ve been sharing glimpses of my decorated walls to a new audience over Zoom as I interview for summer internship opportunities. Almost every bout of small talk has led to the same comments: “That’s an artsy background…” or “What do you have on your walls?”
I usually jump at the chance to share more about my aesthetic interests, especially when the professionals I’m meeting seem genuinely interested in what I have to say. I’ve never questioned whether I should use a virtual background on a video call because I was excited at the prospect of sharing more of my personality and tastes with my interviewers, even if they didn’t seem particularly impressed by what they saw.
It would be wrong to say my confidence in this line of thinking hasn’t wavered over the course of the semester. A mentor of mine recently encouraged me to maintain my real-life background over a virtual one for my interviews, but only because my prints are cleanly arranged.
“And please fix the one on the end with the corner coming off the wall,” he said, explaining how he had found it distracting during several of our meetings. I was defensive at first, saying, “I have! It’s so close to my pillows, so it never stays up —” He cut me off: “Put a pin in it.”
I understood his advice. If I was going to opt out of a virtual background, my real-life one had to present perfectly on camera. For my next interview, I made sure to triple check my camera’s field of view before logging into the meeting. It felt like making sure my blazer wasn’t wrinkled before leaving the house.
It probably would have been easier to leave my room in the state that it was that morning instead of dedicating precious pre-interview focus to tidying. But I couldn’t shake the thought that, if I did, I would be showing up as a partial self. A blank wall might be more appropriate for professional meetings, and I can see how this type of outward representation of my inner world is not the corporate norm, even in a post-COVID world. But in taking this opportunity to share more of myself with others, I feel as if I can reclaim some of the interpersonal connection lost in a virtual meeting.
By letting someone into my space, albeit virtually, I can share with them how I see the world. A Gwendolyn Brooks poem. Several photos of my best friends. A print of a painting hanging in the Met. These are the things I look up at when I open my eyes to the day or am sitting at my desk with writer’s block or come home spinning after a night of dancing. They are 8×10 renditions of the things that inspire me with new ideas and remind me I’m living a life full of joy and love, even in the moments when it doesn’t feel like it.
— Magazine writer Nicole B. Farina can be reached at email@example.com.