Take two steps and stop. Take two steps and stop. Take two steps and stop. Shake a few hands. Say hello, nice to see you, a pleasure, an honor.

It's over. Go get a drink.

The Receiving Line: Composed of political necessity, social tradition and boredom, it may be the archetypal Washington experience. It can go on for hours, with hundreds, or even thousands of people. And now, with the holiday season party onslaught just beginning and the return of Congress as close as the next hors d'oeuvres at a well-catered party, the season of the line is upon Washington. But just because everyone's done it doesn't mean everyone does it well. Whether you are doing the receiving or being received, Life on the Receiving Line is more complicated than you think. The Receiving Line Nightmare

"You know you're going to see faces you're going to blank on," says Corcoran director Michael Botwinick, a frequent receiver who just last night survived a line at the opening of the Corcoran exhibit "The Sun King." "Me especially -- my mind goes to oatmeal. You see eight, nine hundred people go by. It's difficult because they're out of context. They know who you are because they remember what they're there for.

"But people are understanding. In Washington, they know even when it's your mother you're going to say, 'Hi, I'm Michael Botwinick, so nice to see you.' " The Prime Goal of the Receiving Line

For both receivers and received, keep the line moving.

"I have seen some incredible people," says Ina Ginsburg, trustee of the American Film Institute. "They know how to shake a hand and move them along at the same time. The handshake already propels you forwards. It's a great art." The Receiving Line in Literature

"I would imagine they've had receiving lines as long as they had society, social events, debutantes," says Virginia Depew, editor of the Social List of Washington, otherwise known as the Green Book.

But in all those years, the receiving line has been sadly neglected as a subject for artistic creation. Now, that seems to be changing. Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Republican National Committee, recently penned this ode to the receiving line:

There he is, just standing in line,

He looks bored, out of his mind,

Shaking hands, with everybody's aunt,

Wants to escape, but knows he can't.

For if he leaves that line tonight,

He'll fall from favor, no pol's delight,

Lose his fame, and all that's divine,

So there he is, still standing in line. People Who Truly Enjoy Receiving Lines

Nobody.

Oh, politicians will tell you they treasure the opportunity to meet their constituents, to get a chance to talk, but as former Egyptian ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal says, "No receiving line is what you call a lovable thing.

"You are standing in line," he explains. "And no standing in line -- to go to the movie or to go to see the King Tut -- is a lovable thing." Making the Best of a Bad Thing

* "It's maybe the only time you'll see the host and hostess and the guest of honor," says socialite Buffy Cafritz, who calculates she stands in almost 100 receiving lines a year. "It's a necessary evil."

* Creative receiving is possible, but you must devote time to perfecting its more subtle possibilities.

One option is to form a receiving line annex after you complete your tour through the line. This is especially popular among cabinet members and public relations executives and was demonstrated by Attorney General William French Smith and his wife Jean at a party at the Folger Library recently.

How to do what the Smiths did: Station yourself less than 10 feet from the last receiver and greet everyone you care about as they come off the line. This saves you the trouble of having to circulate through the party, a tiring and necessarily random undertaking, and gives the impression that you are somehow something more than just a guest. Receiving Line Faux Pas

* Leaving your tact at home.

"We pick up a lot of intelligence," says Richard Allen, former White House national security adviser. "The only shocking thing you hear is after the person moves on, and you hear the person in the line say, 'I've never met a bigger ass in my whole life.' But if you have any experience in Washington, you learn not to do that."

* Mixing politics and receiving.

"Some people, when they reach you in the line, will ask, 'Why did you say that in the newspaper?' " says Fahrenkopf. "Usually they say, 'I agree with you,' but sometimes they say, 'You jerk!'

"You smile, or, depending on who's standing next to you -- if you don't mind them hearing what you say -- you use profanity, you give it right back to them. But that's unusual."

* Shaking too hard.

This is the ultimate sin for the person being received. Just remember, you only have to shake four, five, maybe six hands. Those poor people immobilized in their importance will be faced with hundreds of palms, thousands of fingers. Be gentle.

And be observant. Little signals are important, like a wince as you grasp the hand offered to you, or sign of recent injury.

Waving his right thumb, broken in a rodeo accident and neatly encased in a splint, Commerce Secretary Malcom Baldrige said recently, "It helps when you're shaking hands. They don't squeeze as hard."

* Breaking the rhythm.

The presence of people who are receiving (and therefore must be important) or simply the exhaustion of waiting for hours just to shake a few hands can be too much for some. They panic, and an entire receiving line can be disrupted.

There are many ways to disrupt a line.

You can engage the president in an involved discussion of foreign policy.

You can say you must, you absolutely must, have your picture taken with the secretary of state, and please could the photographer get you from both sides and with your wife, and your daughter too, and your daughter's boyfriend, it will only take a minute.

"Usually, people get so worked up because the president is in the room, they totally space out," says White House photographer Michael Evans.

In order to avoid these and other embarrassments, certain official precautions are taken.

"We have a military aide who tells them to say their name to the chief of protocol," says Gahl Hodges, White House social secretary. "Before they get to the point of meeting the president, he gives them a little briefing. If there's a problem with lingering, we have a military aide at the end to motion to them and facilitate it."

So if you're panicking about blowing it the next time you are faced with a receiving line, don't. Even an amateur can succeed with a little preparation. A Few Words of Advice on Receiving Lines:

* The Chief of Protocol is your friend.

Selwa Roosevelt, chief of protocol, stands in receiving lines at functions held by the secretary of state, the vice president and the president whenever foreign dignitaries are involved. She is not an official member of the line -- therefore, her hand is not for shaking. Her role, instead, is to ask guests their names, introduce them to the first person in line and calm the anxious.

"When I can see they've never been to a state dinner, or other formal event, I try to help them along," Roosevelt says. "I often keep my hand behind me -- the right hand especially -- so they won't shake my hand. But I don't want people to be embarrassed if they do shake my hand. If they do, I do it in a different way -- I don't shake their hand, I take it, and kind of usher them along and say, 'I'm the chief of protocol and I'd like to present you to the president.' "

* If you are receiving, watch out for aggressive jewelry.

"The rings of the ladies . . ." laments Alejandro Orfila, former secretary general of the Organization of American States. "When you shake hands, there is more than once you could hurt your hand with the ring."

* Don't worry if you get tired. You're not the only one.

"I don't like being on the receiving end," says Jean Smith, wife of the attorney general. "I think it's exhausting. I always think I don't say anything brilliant after the first hundred people." The Wide World of Receiving Lines

"In Portugal, it's slightly more formal," says Portuguese Ambassador Leonardo Mathias. "In Portugal, they usually do not present themselves. If they are our guests, they assume we know them, and just say, 'Hello, thank you for inviting us.' The principle is, they have been invited because we know them, even when we do not."

So count your blessings, Americans. At least you know the name of the 732nd person to shake your hand in the course of an evening. The Best Person to Go Through a Receiving Line

The mother of a White House employe was very excited when her daughter arranged for her to meet Reagan. The daughter warned her mother several times not to take up too much of the president's valuable time.

"So this woman didn't," says photographer Evans. "It was almost like she did a standing broad jump. She fairly whizzed by the president." Receiving Line Etiquette

* A woman should never be the last person in the receiving line.

"This might mean two women might stand next to each other," says Depew, "but it's a courtesy not to end a line with a woman."

And courtesy, in such things, is key.

* When a married couple is going through a line, the husband should go first.

"It's easier to say 'Mr. and Mrs. John Jones,' " insists Roosevelt, "than 'Mrs. Jones . . . and here's Mr. Jones.' The aide usually does it without making a big deal of it. That's not being sexist or anything, it's making for an efficient and smooth receiving line."

* You are tempted to avoid going through the receiving line altogether and you wonder if this is correct. No guidance is possible on such a question. Some decisions must remain personal.

* Don't be surprised if some of the people receiving you don't look very familiar. They are probably the people who organized the event.

"The first few people, people usually know," says Ginsberg. "After that it gets a little sticky."

* Some receivers like to stash a drink behind a bush or curtain, but Orfila doesn't believe in this approach.

"You're supposed to concentrate every minute," he says. "You need both hands. I like to shake hands and put my other hand around the shoulders, or embrace."

* Never, never, never try to butt into the line. This is occasionally done by the more pushy, but unless you are a very important person who obviously has little time to stand in line because the country depends on you, forget it. Take your place at the end like the rest of us. History's Longest Receiving Line

Between January 20 and 22, 1977, newly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter received more than 10,000 supporters, politicians, diplomats and members of the armed forces. The lines started every morning at 10 and ran until after 4.

"It was such an exhilarating time," says Gretchen Poston, White House social secretary at the time. "I don't remember being tired at all." History's Shortest Receiving Line

There is no such thing as a short receiving line. How Many Hands Are Too Many?

A line that takes more than 45 minutes is generally agreed to be excessive.

"We sometimes like to take small bets about the handshake lines," says Evans. "We're going to see if we can get 450 people by the president in five minutes. We've had some Rube Goldberg plans. When the diplomats come at Chirstmas, some of them like to stop and talk -- maybe we should have a little conveyor belt." How to Be the Ultimate Receiver

At his farewell party recently, outgoing Egyptian ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal stood in place as 2,000 people filed by, shook his hand and disappeared into the party.

"My friends really were the kind ones," he says, "to stand that length of time in order to bid farewell to my wife and I."

This is what is known as a good receiving line attitude.

"In functions of this sort," Ghorbal says, "they provide a chance to chat with the people behind and in front of you.

"It's part of the reception, the cocktail hour. You're just doing it without a drink."