In other words, blushing might be primarily an emotional message, but the variety of its content can vary from “I’m attracted to you” to “What dreadful manners you have!” Decoding these nuances is not always straightforward. Little surprise then that Jane Austen’s heroines are particularly prone to blushing, relying on their pink cheeks, in O’Farrell’s words, to “reveal things about themselves that would be difficult for them—living, as they do, in a highly-mannered world—to reveal in speech.”
Unsurprisingly, there’s a gendered element to this, as well. Blushing is not just a common response, but perhaps a desirable one for young ladies, insofar as it demonstrates their innocence—or the opposite. “If a woman is supposed to blush in the presence of a risqué remark, as the old conduct literature suggests, does her blush means she is innocent and mildly disapproving, or is she guilty of something by virtue of getting the joke?” O’Farrell asks.
Sadly, real-world blushers seem more likely to suffer from blushing’s impact on their lives. It’s not quite the social disaster that it was in the 1930s, when the theories of Viennese psychologist Ernst Bien linked red cheeks to necrophilia, repressed cannibalism, and even men’s vicarious desire to experience menstruation. But online forums devoted to blushing reveal many people for whom turning red is still a source of frustration and embarrassment, to the extent that the blushing has its own associated phobia: erythophobia, the fear of going red. For some people, blushing is a self-perpetuating cycle: The worry about blushing becomes precisely the thing that brings it on.
I spoke to one man who’s a frequenter of a blushing support forum, and he believes his life-long blushing has severely limited his ability to form relationships and progress at work. “I’m lucky to have a wonderful and understanding wife now, but for a long time blushing made it really hard to meet anyone,” he says. “People think it’s cute if you’re a woman, but just off-putting if you’re a man. I’m sure I’d be in a very different position in my career now if I didn’t feel I had to avoid any kind of public scrutiny. Even speaking up in small meetings makes me uncomfortable and anxious. And when I blush my face actively hurts.”
There are some treatment options. Hypnotherapy, counseling, and breathing exercises all have had some success in reducing blushing (or at least reducing anxiety about blushing, because it’s also often hard to be sure whether the turning red itself is the chicken or the egg). The most extreme modern solution is endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy, a surgical procedure where the nerves that cause the facial blood vessels to dilate are cut. It’s extremely effective—the success rate is 95 percent—but its potential side-effects include facial nerve damage and excessive sweating. This indicates exactly how serious the problem is for people willing to take the risk.