(NEXSTAR) — If you want to make a great first impression during a Zoom meeting, you might want to check what’s in your background. Some experts are calling it the new business suit.
A group of researchers at Durham University in the UK examined how gender, facial expressions, and video backdrops influence first impressions online.
Their study, published Sept. 27 in the journal Plos One, noted that the way people meet in professional settings is changing as digital platforms like Zoom and Teams grow in popularity thanks, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While you should still dress appropriately during these virtual calls, your clothes are not the only thing colleagues might be looking at. What’s on your screen also matters.
“It gives off information about all sorts of stuff — about how you live, your socioeconomic status, your confidence, your cleanliness levels. These are all things you’re presenting to someone else as a first impression,” lead researcher Paddy Ross, told Nexstar. “That’s why we say it’s like the new business suit because it really is as important as that from a presentation point of view.”
Ross and his team collected 72 images of 36 people from a photo database. The photos showed each person with either happy or neutral facial expressions. The researchers then superimposed these faces over different virtual backgrounds and edited a Zoom border around them to simulate a videoconferencing call.
The six backgrounds selected for the study included a living room, a blurred version of the same living room, a bookcase, house plants, a blank wall, and a novelty background — which, in this instance, was a walrus on an iceberg.
Then, 167 participants, aged between 19 and 68, completed an online survey about how trustworthy each person pictured seemed to be. Faces with books or plants behind them scored the highest in terms of trustworthiness, followed by the blurred living room and the blank wall. The regular living room and novelty backgrounds were rated least favorably.
“Just showing your living room or a novelty background actually significantly reduced the ratings of trust and competence,” Ross said. “We found that just by blurring the living room, it actually raised trust and competence ratings.”
Ross, who is also an associate psychology professor at Durham University, said he thought the blurred background would have ranked even lower — but the results surprised him.
“We didn’t find that at all,” Ross said. “We actually found that it raised it, and it could just be that it gives the impression that someone has actually put a bit of thought into what they’re presenting.”
When it came to expressions, participants viewed happy faces as more trustworthy than neutral faces. Researchers said this could be because smiling may signal confidence, high self-esteem, and success. As for gender, the women pictured gave off better first impressions than the men overall.
“Female faces were also rated as more trustworthy and more competent, regardless of the background they were using,” the study’s authors wrote, adding that more research is needed to address this particular finding.
Ross also said there were some limitations to the study, one being the faces used were not pre-screened on attractiveness, which can influence first impressions. The team also used still images for controllability — researchers didn’t want things like tone of voice to impact results — but there are plans to incorporate videos into future research. Next, Ross said he wants to analyze how video backgrounds can affect virtual job interviews.
“What we’re going to be doing is shifting away from first impressions and looking more into real-life decisions, hiring decisions,” Ross said. “These are things that affect people’s livelihoods, their opportunity. And if there is an unconscious bias for backgrounds, then it’s something that people need to be trained in.”
“If a house looks grubby, is the person literally less likely to get hired than someone who lives in a more affluent-looking house? That would not be very good, but part of me wonders whether that will actually be the case,” Ross added.