“What are you looking at?!” – Body Language in Judging

Written by Ruth Woodrow
Level 1, United Kingdom

Written by Ruth Woodrow
Level 1, United Kingdom

Picture the scene: you’re judging at a prerelease, you get a call, and you have to tell someone an interaction doesn’t work how they want it to. No sweat. You’ve seen other judges do this tons of times and no-one seems to get upset by it. But somehow when you do it you find the player getting belligerent and disagreeing with you, even though you said all the same things you’ve heard other judges say in this situation. Where did you go wrong?

Now maybe you just got that player. Maybe they were already in a bad mood and getting an unwelcome answer from you put them over the edge. Or perhaps you were unintentionally communicating uncertainty, or defensiveness, or even aggression. “But I said the same things everyone says in that situation”, I hear you say. “How was I being aggressive?” Simple – your body language. Perhaps you were looming over the player, making them feel small, attacked, and therefore on the defensive. Maybe you kept looking over at the other judge in the room as though looking for their approval. Maybe your tone of voice made the player feel stupid. This is just one example of how body language can be crucial to achieving the desired outcome in a judging situation.

As judges, we spend a lot of time learning, thinking about, and discussing rules, complex corner case interactions, and policy. But what about the little things we can change to make it more likely that players will come and talk to us about their concerns?

Which judge would you be more likely to approach with a question, particularly if you thought your question was maybe a bit of a silly one? I’d be willing to bet most people would be more likely to go ask the second judge a question than the first, and the reason for that is body language.

So what exactly do we mean by body language? In general terms, it’s the non-verbal cues which humans use to communicate. That’s how we stand, our facial expressions, the gestures we use, and even the amount of space we give (or don’t give) the people around us.

Want to make yourself seem welcoming and approachable at events? (Part of our job as judges is to encourage players to come to us with their questions and concerns, after all…) Try and think about how you tend to stand. Do you default to crossing your arms across your chest? That’s likely to come across to players as defensive and probably less approachable. Hands on your hips? People are likely to read you as aggressive or judgemental. As a general rule, it’s best to try and stand with your hands behind your back – when combined with a friendly expression, this tends to encourage people to approach you. The ideal (according to experts in body language) would be hands by your sides… but I find people tend to look awkward with this as most people don’t find it particularly comfortable. I often get round that by hooking my thumbs into my pockets, but I would try to avoid too much time spent with your hands actually in your pockets, as this can convey an impression of boredom.

What about posture when you’re taking judge calls? Well in an ideal world there would be an empty seat next to every table that calls us. Then we could sit down, which gives us a valuable chance to take the weight off our feet, but also brings us down to the players’ level and makes it much easier to make eye contact with them, as well as making us much less intimidating. Sadly we don’t live in a perfect world, so we just have to do the best we can. For short calls on end tables, crouching down can be a reasonable alternative (where physically possible – not everyone is physically able to crouch for long, or at all, and that’s absolutely fine). Where neither of the above options is possible, leaning down is often the best option remaining to us. When doing that it’s important to be aware of where you’re leaning – are you leaning across someone? Because that’s probably not OK. Are you almost leaning on a player’s shoulder? Also not OK. Try to lean next to people, giving everyone as much space as possible, to bring yourself closer to their level, and always be careful not to loom!

Facial expressions are fairly self-explanatory… try not to look bored, fed up, or grumpy, even if it’s been a really long day and honestly you’re just looking forward to getting home! At the other end of the scale, don’t go too overboard on trying to smile all the time – the “I’m a 5-year-old who just got told to say cheese for the camera” look can also be somewhat intimidating. Try and aim for relaxed and friendly (easier said than done, I know… but I often find that thinking about something that naturally makes me smile, like kittens, helps).

The related point here is eye contact. We’re always told to make eye contact with people, but a lot of people find that quite hard. A little trick I discovered is to look at a person’s nose instead – it gives the impression of eye contact without actually requiring you to look someone straight in the eye! It’s also actually a good idea to switch between eye contact and watching a person’s mouth. That might sound a little odd, but looking at someone’s mouth while they’re talking actually conveys a subconscious message that you’re actively listening to what they’re saying.

Ever noticed how you unconsciously move away from someone if they stand too close to you at the bus stop? They got in your personal space, so you shifted away from them. How close we are comfortable with people being to us depends on how well we know them, but it can also depend on how we’re feeling more generally. People who are in a good mood frequently have a higher tolerance for people slightly infringing on their personal space than people who are tired, or upset, or even hungry. There are also cultural differences on how close people are comfortable being to strangers – people from some cultures tend to have a greater need for personal space than others. So perhaps the next time you take a call and a player seems uncomfortable it’s worth taking a moment to consider whether you might be getting in their personal space. Are you leaning across the table towards them? Or standing right behind them? Maybe you need to back off a touch.

So, to sum up:

  • Try not to spend too much time with your arms crossed or your hands on your hips
  • Where possible, get down to the players’ level when taking calls
  • Try to keep negative emotions off your face. If you’re struggling, maybe try to think about something that makes you happy since that should bring a natural smile to your face
  • Make eye contact… but not constantly, that’s just creepy! Whoever you’re talking to, switch between looking them in the eye (or at their nose!) and looking at their mouth
  • Be aware of personal space, and keep in mind that other people might need more space than you do

Taking a few moments to consider what your body language is communicating to players might be the difference between a nervous new player coming up to ask you something or them staying away and never finding out that they could change their deck between rounds, for example, having a terrible event and never coming back. Or between a player smiling and nodding when you tell them the trigger they missed (which would have won them the game at their prerelease) was a may trigger so they don’t get it and them getting really upset and leaving at the end of the day thinking you robbed them of that extra prize pack.

So maybe try to ask yourself every now and then: “Am I standing defensively? Do I look like I want to be here? Does my body language invite players to interact with me?” And do something about it if you’re not sure the answers to those questions are the right ones.

I’ve concentrated largely on our own body language here – if you have found this article useful and would like to see a follow-up on player body language and how it can inform our responses to calls then please let me know!

Further reading:

Useful search terms:

  • Open body language
  • Nonverbal communication