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The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Facial Blushing



Note whether she changes color while you are giving her my message . . . --Don Quixote to Sancho Panza (Cervantes 1605:566)

A flush stole over Miss Sutherland's face, and she picked nervously at the fringe of her jacket. --Arthur Conan Doyle ("A Case of Identity")

A couple of red spots the size of half dollars showed on his cheekbones. --Raymod Chandler (The Big Sleep


Emotion cue. Becoming red or rosy in the face from physical exercise, embarrassment, shyness, anger, or shame.
Usage: Facial flushing or blushing is elicited by social stimuli, e.g., as one a. becomes the focus of attention in a group, b. is asked to speak in public, or c. experiencesstranger anxiety. Suddenly the face, ears, and neck (and in extreme cases, the entire upper chest) redden, causing further embarrassment still.

Anatomy. Blushing is caused by sudden arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, which dilates the small blood vessels of the face and body (see FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT).

Ethology. "Flushing, contrary to popular belief, is never seen in a purely aggressive individual; it is a sign of actual or possible defeat" (Brannigan and Humphries 1969:407).


Medicine. Some people blush uncontrollably in almost any social situation, and suffer such embarrassment that they undergo surgery to interrupt sympathetic nervous supply to their faces. In a thorascopic sympathecotomy, an incision is made through the arm pit into the thoracic cavity to sever a sympathetic nerve located close to the spine. (N.B.: Embarrassing sweaty palms may be controlled the same way.)

Protoblush. One of the first signs of anger, arousal, or embarrassment is an uncontrollable reddening of the ears.
RESEARCH REPORTS1. "In most cases the face, ears and neck are the sole parts which redden; but many persons, whilst blushing intensely, feel that their whole bodies grow hot and tingle . . ." (Darwin 1872:312). 2. The red face (accompanied by overhand beating and screaming) has been observed in nursery school children who were motivated to attack but did not actually do so (i.e., they seemed "defeated"; Blurton Jones 1967:355). 3. "[Michael] Lewis suggests that embarrassment is first seen between the ages of two and two and a half" (Ekman 1998:311). 4. "There is general agreement among contemporary researchers that attention to the self is the cause of blushing" (Ekman 1998:324).