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In Praise of Blushing

For anyone with a tendency to blush, the idea that there might be something positive about going uncontrollably red in front of others can sound absurd. But however uncomfortable it may be to blush, doing so indicates a range of admirable character traits we should honour in ourselves and welcome in others. Far from a disability, blushing is a sign of virtue.

It’s strong evidence that one is, almost certainly, rather a nice person.

We tend to blush first and foremost from a fear that something about us might bother or prove unacceptable to other people.

– We blush after we’ve told a joke in company and worry that it might have come across as inappropriate or offensive.

– We blush when we abruptly realise that we may have arrived at someone’s house half an hour too early for dinner (even if they are doing their kindly best to disguise the fact).

– We blush when we are concerned that something we said sounded boastful.

– We blush because we told a little untruth, feel ashamed and fear others immediately see through us.

In other words, blushing is powered by an unusually strong ethical sense. It is generated by a terror of making others uncomfortable, a horror of inconveniencing people, a distaste for seeming arrogant or entitled and an overwhelming qualm about saying anything untrue.

These may be hugely inconvenient feelings to experience, but they’re very nice ones to harbour, because they almost guarantee that one won’t in fact turn into the unpleasant person one is so acutely sensitive to the dangers of being. Blushing is a guarantee of a fundamental, unbudgeable involuntary honesty, a reminder to ourselves and to the world that something deep within us is offended by, and won’t tolerate, fraudulence or arrogance.

Not coincidentally, we may fall particularly prey to blushing around the start of relationships. As we sit in someone’s living room late at night, wondering whether they might want to kiss us or we them, we may feel our faces redden deeply. This too is a high ethical achievement, born out of a kindly – and sometimes rightful – sense that we may be unwelcome. The blushing seducer is profoundly aware of the dangers of being a nuisance.

Someone with no capacity to blush is, for this reason, a scary possibility; for they must implicitly operate with a dismaying attitude of entitlement. They can be so composed and sure only because they haven’t taken on board the crucial possibility of their unenchanting nature.

Excessive self-doubt can of course blight our lives. But blushing seems on the edge of something properly worth celebrating: a high degree of self-knowledge and an awareness of how disturbing we can be to others – an imaginative exercise that helps to keep our unappealing sides properly and fruitfully in check.

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