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What others' embarrassing moments say about you

Do you let your BFF know when she has lettuce caught between her teeth? How about telling your buddy his fly is unzipped? Or pointing out that a coworker is dragging toilet paper on his shoe?

Whether you say something in these potentially awkward situations and how quickly you do reveals something about your personality.

Those who are the most afraid of being embarrassed are slower to point out an easily correctible flaw, if they even bother to say anything at all, a new study finds.

"People tend to underestimate how much our behavior is influenced by a fear of being embarrassed," says Melanie Green, one of the study's co-authors.

Researchers wondered if a fear of embarrassment makes a person hesitant to get involved in a "bystander intervention." Some studies have suggested that someone's willingness to help is influenced more by the situation rather than personality.

Studies looking at temperament have focused on qualities making people more inclined to act, whether it's a sense of responsibility or empathy toward others. In this study, researchers explored the flip side, whether one aspect of personality -- embarrassment-- inhibits the desire to help.

To test whether this behavior occurs, they looked at a "face-threatening situation," in which a person's appearance has a temporary flaw -- think mustard on your lips or the label sticking up from your shirt collar. Having someone point this out could help you save face.

The study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, gave 84 college students an opportunity to help an experimenter by telling her she had ink on her face.

Some of the participants were told the ink-stained experimenter had an interview to go to afterward, and others were not. And some students shared the room with the experimenter and a confederate, someone who was in on the study, while others had a one-on-one interaction with her.

Volunteers also completed two tests measuring their tendency to feel embarrassed.

Bashful types were slower to point out the ink to the experimenter and less likely to do so with a confederate in the room. If they mentioned the ink with another person present, they did it quietly -- usually by whispering.

"People who are more concerned with embarrassment might take longer to work up the courage to engage in a potentially awkward interaction," says Green, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Having another person present makes the situation even trickier. 

Would sheepish people mention a flaw to someone they knew better rather than a stranger? Although Green suspects people are more comfortable pointing out a temporary shortcoming to friends over strangers, people who are more fearful of being embarrassed seem less likely to point out flaws. 

"Even though it can feel awkward, in most cases people really are being helpful by pointing out a correctable problem to someone, especially if they can do so in a discreet way," Green points out. 

What about you? Do you tend to tuck in someone's sticking-out tag, or tell someone when she's got something on her face?