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Zoom Backgrounds: Where Do Liberals & Conservatives Draw the Line?

By Amy Bonomi & Finneran K. Muzzey

Zoom has opened boundaries: it has literally offered a window into our colleagues’ personal lives – as well as our own. And, based on our new research, Zoom users ranging from the most conservative to the most liberal have opinions about what they’re seeing.

On the one hand, Zoom offers benefits, like the option to pair sweatpants with a work blazer or hide a pile of laundry with a creative background.

However, after months of relying on Zoom, academics (like ourselves) have examined some of its discomforts. For example, Shonda Buchanan discusses her self-consciousness Zooming as a Black, Indigenous woman, describing her discomfort as one of her braids falls over her shoulder (while her White colleagues seem unfazed thrusting dogs on camera)

Similarly, we've argued that some may not think twice about a wedding photo on our colleagues’ desk in a face-to-face setting; but if used as a virtual background, the photo may take on new meaning. In this context, the photo may be seen as unconsciously perpetuating heterosexual privilege because we are staring screen-to-screen.

But what if the wedding photo shows a man embracing with his wife, who transitioned from man to woman last year? Would we interpret privilege similarly?

Or, what if the wedding photo hangs next to a mounted deer head from a recent hunting trip?

Conjure some discomfort? Not surprising – these images are counter-stereotypical and perhaps unexpected.

So, when it comes to Zoom backgrounds, where do people draw the line?

We conducted a research survey of 495 adults about their attitudes towards virtual backgrounds that we previously heard others refer to as “offensive” or “disgusting.”

Knowing that unconscious bias (the unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that we have towards others) commonly aligns with political ideology, we went one step further by breaking attitudes down by self-described political ideology.

We found that the virtual window into people’s personal lives has also brought out opinions and expressions of bias, on matters ranging from cleanliness to race-based bias. Largely, conservatives and liberals felt equal levels of offense or disgust on many of the virtual backgrounds we asked about, except on matters of race and transgender identity. Put plainly: Both conservative and liberal people felt equally offended on certain things – except for race or trans issues.

Wedding Photos – Always Accepted?

We asked participants about wedding photos used in virtual backgrounds. There was no difference between conservative and liberal interpretations of a heterosexual couple’s wedding photo. Conservatives did however feel offended by a transgender wedding photo.

No Filth

Filth is often perceived as laziness – piles of unfolded laundry or stacks of dirty dishes in a virtual background might translate to, “they don’t care about themselves, their household, or their personal hygiene.” Things like empty beer or wine bottles might make some people question the person’s morality or mental health. In our survey, conservatives and liberals were equally disgusted by filth, such as a kitchen counter with dirty dishes (71% were disgusted).

Where Do We Fall on Political and Religious Ideology, Personal Matters?

We asked about other visuals that might elicit strong feelings related to matters such as Pepe the Frog (an online hate symbol), fancy necklaces, Marilyn Monroe, favorite sports teams, images of Jesus Christ, mounted deer, and photos of the Zoom attendee in a bathing suit. Interestingly, we didn’t find significant differences in feelings between the two parties.

However, three visuals did bring out big differences in offense: a poster of Malcolm X, the Holy Koran, and images in support of Black Lives Matter. Conservatives were significantly more offended than liberals by each of these.

So what do we do?

Our findings can be summed up in one sentence that may not surprise: conservatives and liberals have largely equal opinions about what they’re seeing in Zoom backgrounds, except on matters pertaining to race and transgender identity.

Given the unprecedented stressors marking this era, we must redouble our mindfulness and support each other in Zoom environments.

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