Ketuvot 67b ~ Blushing and Shaming

 תלמוד בבלי כתובות סז ב 

נוח לו לאדם שימסור עצמו לכבשן האש ואל ילבין פני חבירו ברבים

It is better for a person to jump into a fiery furnace, 
rather than embarrass his friend in public

As a child, I blushed easily. This did not rise to the level of an illness (I think) but I was most certainly aware of of how easily I blushed, and so were some of my high school teachers, who would only need to call my name and my face would turn red. (I now know this is not that uncommon. The easy blushing that is. Actually, nor is the cruelty of teachers, now I come to think of it.)  Darwin called blushing "the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions." It occurs when the face, ears, neck and upper chest redden on darken in response to perceived social scrutiny or evaluation. 

When Do We Blush?

There appear to be four social triggers that result in blushing: a) a threat to public identity; 2) praise or public attention 3) scrutiny, and oddly enough, 4) accusations of blushing. This last trigger is especially fascinating: just telling a person that they are blushing - even when they are not - can trigger a blush. 

Blushing is not only triggered by certain social situations; it also triggers other responses in those who blush. The most commonly associated behaviors are averting the gaze and smiling. Although gaze aversion is a universal feature of embarrassment, its frequency differs across cultures: in the United kingdom 41% report averting their eyes when they are embarrassed, whereas only 8% of Italians report doing so. Smiling is also a common response. Up to a third of those who are embarrassed display a "nervous" or "silly grin." 

Why Do We Blush?

It is unclear why humans blush. Of course, we blush when we are embarrassed, but why should this physiological response occur? The blood vessels in the face (and the other areas that blush) seem to differ structurally from other vessels, and so respond in a unique way. But just how they do so, and why, remains a physiological mystery.  Here's the surgeon Atul Gawande's explanation, from the pages of The New Yorker.

Why we have such a reflex is perplexing. One theory is that the blush exists to show embarrassment, just as the smile exists to show happiness. This would explain why the reaction appears only in the visible regions of the body (the face, the neck, and the upper chest). But then why do dark-skinned people blush? Surveys find that nearly everyone blushes, regardless of skin color, despite the fact that in many people it is nearly invisible. And you don’t need to turn red in order for people to recognize that you’re embarrassed. Studies show that people detect embarrassment before you blush. Apparently, blushing takes between fifteen and twenty seconds to reach its peak, yet most people need less than five seconds to recognize that someone is embarrassed—they pick it up from the almost immediate shift in gaze, usually down and to the left, or from the sheepish, self-conscious grin that follows a half second to a second later. So there’s reason to doubt that the purpose of blushing is entirely expressive.
There is, however, an alternative view held by a growing number of scientists. The effect of intensifying embarrassment may not be incidental; perhaps that is what blushing is for. The notion isn’t as absurd as it sounds. People may hate being embarrassed and strive not to show it when they are, but embarrassment serves an important good. For, unlike sadness or anger or even love, it is fundamentally a moral emotion. Arising from sensitivity to what others think, embarrassment provides painful notice that one has crossed certain bounds while at the same time providing others with a kind of apology. It keeps us in good standing in the world. And if blushing serves to heighten such sensitivity this may be to one’s ultimate advantage.

Blushing and Crossing Boundaries

So blushing may confer an advantage. It keeps us in good social standing, insuring that we do not step outside of the bounds of accepted behavior. This notion is supported by some recent work (published more than a decade after Gawande's 2001 article) that supports this notion of blushing having a social utility.  Those who blush frequently showed a positive association between blushing and shame. These frequent blushers generally behaved less dominantly and more submissively. Writing in the journal Emotion in 2011 (yes, that really is the name of this academic journal), three Dutch psychologists demonstrated that blushing after a social transgression serves a remedial function. In their (highly experimental lab) work on human volunteers, blushers were judged more positively and were perceived as more trustworthy than their non-blushing counterparts.  

Still, helpful as it may be to regain the trust of others, social embarrassment can come at a huge cost - including the suicide of those who have been embarrassed. In the Talmud, embarrassing another person is called הלבנת פני חבר - literally translated as "making the face of another turn white." This is of course quite the opposite of what actually occurs when a person blushes, and seems to suggest another, deeper level of embarrassment, (though it's not something discussed in the scientific literature). According to the Talmud, the person is so embarrassed that the blood drains from his face, causing him to turn pale.  This raises an interesting question: if  blushing serves an important social function - reminding a person that he has violated rules which should be held sacred - why does the Talmud tell us to to avoid causing embarrassment? haven't they been caught in the act of  violating our rules? Discuss this over the upcoming two-days of יום–טוב (or שבת–יום טוב) and let me know what you think. 

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