The world, according to Zoom backgrounds

I have a fun observation. At best, may not be true. At worst, problematic. But it’s still a useful exercise. I’m talking about Zoom backgrounds. Real backgrounds and virtual backgrounds.

100s of hours of zoomprov across the world, here are sweeping trends I pick up:

  • Americans zoom in from open living rooms in a spacious house. Sometimes we get a glimpse of a garden or a patio when they move around with camera on. Sometimes we catch them in a car.
  • Europeans zoom in from inside a more cramped accommodation. Likely a room in a rented apartment, may or may not be shared. Occasionally, you catch them at public transport.
  • Asians fall into two kinds.
    Asians Type 1
    zoom in from a family house (guest room?). There’s noise from other people in the house. Occasionally you see a house staff in the background.
    Asians Type 2 zoom in exclusively with virtual backgrounds. You are shielded from what their real life is like.
  • Americans and Europeans use virtual backgrounds less than Asians, except for performative purposes (rather than hiding their home)
  • Asians have a lot of trinkets and objects around them.

The point of this exercise is not about getting it right. It’s about awareness. (You can easily find counterexamples. Some American and European players always use virtual backgrounds too. Austin TX players play in more spacious places than NYC players). So take all this with a grain of salt.

Online improv’s major bonus is diversity. Just look around people’s actual homes from Zoomprov, you see: the world is diverse.

Yet sometimes we fall into the lazy trap. If it’s a house, it’s Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives. If it’s an apartment, it’s Rachel and Monica’s cozy flat in Friends. But when I see my friends, I see people playing in their guest room, an elevated outdoor water tank, a neighbor’s parakeet, sounds from a street food vendor. At unfortunate times, Zoomprov sessions disturbed by hurricanes and earthquakes (my heart to fellow Ring of Fire folks).

People live different lives, y’all.

I like to imagine worlds. NOT make stereotypes, just noticing patterns. Scientists love to see patterns although they won’t believe without proper statistics. Here’s some hypotheses I make:

  • More Asian grown-ups stay with their families than their Western counterparts. (This one’s easy.)
  • Why do more Asians use virtual backgrounds than Westerners? (a) Are we more private people? Are there different concepts of what is private and public? I often see someone’s bed in Europe and America beds, but rarely beds in Asia. (b) Are Asians more ashamed of a messy room?
  • Why do Asians play from the guest room, while Americans play from the common living room? (a) Are there generally more people in an Asian household? (b) Or are Americans generally more open while Asians are more reserved?
  • Are improvisers in Asia mainly the privileged?

And so on. These hypotheses may not be true. But awareness is good. They lend itself to be more sensitive to different world around you and how we communicate, teach, learn and play.

To improvise around the world, think of the world around your friends.



An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.

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An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.