Why I’m Putting My Messy Kitchen on Zoom

A jumble of toy kitchen items strewn on a carpet.
“42c — Tiny Messy Kitchen” by TheBrownMike is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

For the first few months after the pandemic forced the whole world onto Zoom, I tried to look “presentable.” In the frantic minutes before a video call, I’d change my shirt, put on mascara, prop my laptop up on a stack of books to get the perspective right, and wedge myself into the far corner of my kitchen. It was not a comfortable place to sit, but it meant the background didn’t include the dishes in the sink, or the various detritus of life on the counters, waiting to be cleared off.

I’d spend the whole call monitoring the angle of my video, hoping one of my dogs wouldn’t wander into the frame, or worse, start to bark, and making sure only my torso — and not the sweatpants I had on — was visible.

A year into life on Zoom, my definition of “presentable” has changed. I’ve taken to appearing on screen exactly as I am. More often than not, that means standing makeup-less in my messy kitchen, in a t-shirt and a ponytail. It’s not that I’ve given up; it’s just that my priorities have shifted. I’ve stopped trying to hide the fact that my house looks lived-in, or pretend my everyday look is camera-ready. And it’s paid off: when I’m not worried about what things look like, I’m able to really listen. My focus and concentration on Zoom calls has improved dramatically.

I’ve noticed something else, too. The people I’m interviewing seem more relaxed. Sometimes they’re more forthcoming. We smile and laugh more during Zoom calls, and afterward, I’m less exhausted and I imagine they are, too.

What I’m experiencing are the very real psychological benefits of authenticity. It’s more than just a buzzword: research finds that authenticity can have significant positive effects on mental health, and can even help protect us against depression, anxiety, and negative physical and psychological outcomes.

In fact, humans are naturally inclined toward it. In her book “Wired for Authenticity,” Henna Inam gives the example of how a polygraph machine uses physiological clues to identify falsehoods. “Lying causes stress in the body,” she writes. “When you lie, the detector shows…a faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, increased perspiration.”

Over the long term, Inam adds, being inauthentic can do the same thing. “Research shows that continuous stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses such as heart disease, depression and obesity. I suspect that hiding the truth about ourselves or suppressing parts of who we are creates similar stresses in our bodies.”

Other studies find that authenticity leads to increased life satisfaction and overall happiness, and that it makes us feel more powerful.

And, a year into a pandemic that’s cut us off from friends, family, and co-workers (hence all the Zoom calls), authenticity is more vital than ever. A research team at the University of Houston found that while being yourself doesn’t necessarily make you less lonely, authenticity can be a buffer against the potential negative side effects — depression, anxiety, alcohol issues, and other physical problems — loneliness can otherwise cause.

So, if you’re using a virtual Zoom background because you miss the feeling of actually being on a sunny Caribbean beach, you do you. But if it’s there to hide a pile of laundry on the couch, or the dishes in your kitchen sink, maybe consider going without. We’re all still in this thing together; we might as well be ourselves.

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