If you are trying to understand a confusing situation involving humans, it is very useful to observe body language. Large body movements, tenseness, swaying and fidgeting are very instructive even beyond facial expressions according to research:
Be it triumph or crushing defeat, exhilaration or agony, body language more accurately conveys intense emotions, according to recent research that challenges the predominance of facial expressions as an indicator of how a person feels.
Princeton University researchers report in the journal Science that facial expressions can be ambiguous and subjective when viewed independently. The researchers asked study participants to determine from photographs if people were experiencing feelings such as loss, victory or pain from facial expressions or body language alone, or from both. In some cases, a facial expression associated with one emotion was paired with a body experiencing the opposite emotion.
In four separate experiments, participants more accurately guessed the pictured emotion based on body language — alone or combined with facial expressions — than on facial context alone. …
“We find that extremely positive and extremely negative emotions are maximally indistinctive,” said Todorov, who worked with first author Hillel Aviezer, a psychology professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem who conducted the work as a postdoctoral researcher under Todorov, and Yaacov Trope, a psychology professor at New York University.
“People can’t tell the difference, although they think they can,” Todorov said. “Subjectively people think they can tell the difference, but objectively they are totally at [random] chance of determining correctly. The message of this research is that there is a lot of information in body language people aren’t necessarily aware of.”
The paper in Science counters popular theories holding that facial expressions are universally consistent indicators of emotion. The most prominent, Todorov said, have been developed by psychologist and University of California-San Francisco professor emeritus Paul Ekman, whose work was fictionalized in the television series “Lie to Me.” …
… study participants typically guessed the situation in accordance with what they gleaned from the body rather than the face….
You can’t always trust body language with someone you’ve never met before, due to individual and cultural differences, but more often than not it helps to observe.
I’ve always wondered about people shake their heads in a “No” gesture while they are saying “yes” to something. You can see it watching people on TV quite often. Is this a mixed message? Does this mean their body is disagreeing with their words? What do you think?