Have you hugged your boss lately?

A colleague?

If you have, be warned that -- despite the best intentions -- the on-the-job embrace begs miscommunication. In the changing work place of the '80s, rarely is a hug just a hug.

It took, after all, Geraldine Ferraro and Walter Mondale until the day after their landslide defeat to hug, even touch, in public -- and then only after the vice presidential candidate got permission from Democratic campaign honchos.

Although, obviously, your hug on the job will hardly make the evening news, nor will political pundits dissect its underlying meaning, coworkers are bound to talk, according to behavioral scientists. And those in the clutch also may have second thoughts.

"It's going to give a garbled message," says Stanley Jones, professor of communication at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of a recent study of how and what people communicate through touch.

First-off, Jones endorses the message of the touch-conscious '70s and of Leo Buscaglia, a k a "Dr. Hug," that it's good to "share our individuality" with other people through exuberant embraces. Nothing overtly sexual, mind you -- the past decade did sensitize Americans to sexual harrassment. But a warm, encompassing cuddle, he agrees, can be therapeutic.

A hug at work, however, is usually the wrong touch, he says, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because it is nonverbal communication taken out of its normal context, interpretations are too often up for grabs.

"The same touch can have different meanings depending on what is said, what is going on and what relationship exists," says Jones, 49, whose study analyzed the "diaries" of 39 students who kept track of their "touch events" for three days. They recorded who touched whom, how, the context, the implications and whether the touch was accepted or rejected.

"A hug," he says the study indicates, "can mean very different things."

Some behavioral experts say that potential for misinterpretation starts with the power of touch -- a sense so potent the Oxford English Dictionary takes five pages to define it.

"The reason it is so volatile is that touch is the only nonverbal cue that involves skin contact," says Janet G. Elsea, president of Communications Skills Inc., a Washington-based firm that provides communication programs for corporations. Research, according to Elsea, shows that both the toucher and the touchee are changed physiologically. Depending on the nature and length of the touch, the body is aroused: The heart beats faster, adrenalin pumps, breathing patterns change and there is a slight rise in temperature where the touch occurs.

"That's why a hug is so difficult in the work place," says Elsea, 42. "We cannot control our physiological response. If we get it in the wrong way in the wrong place, it can be stressful. Someone who is touched inappropriately, for instance, may be forced by circumstances to sublimate rage. Even the best intended hug in the wrong context can be damaging."

Of the various forms of touch that occur between casual friends or strangers, none is physically more encompassing. To hug is to hold, as 90,000 respondents to Ann Landers' recent sex survey overwhelmingly confirmed.

"Ordinarily, affectionate touches such as hugging occur in close friendships or relationships -- 85.7 percent of the time," says Jones. "That may be because of the ambiguity between an affectionate hug and a sexual hug. Vulnerable parts are brought together in both."

The intimate nature of the hug is enough to make employes hesitate, if not stop, before hugging a colleague. For most touch-shy Americans, according to Jones, it's often not even a consideration.

Yet certain hugs in the work environment -- when their intent is narrowly defined and obvious -- are appropriate and seldom misinterpreted.

While the rule for the work place, according to Derek A. Newton, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia, is to "keep your hands to yourself," there are exceptions. "Particularly those moments when there's real reason to vent emotion."

Condolence hugs that send a "keep-a-stiff-upper-lip message," typically accompanied with a pat on the back, are above reproach, says Newton, 54. So there was no second guessing Ferraro and Mondale's last grasp.

When there's compelling reason for announcement or celebration, such as promotions and births, congratulatory hugs are acceptable. Newton compares them to athletic comraderie in the sports arena. "But I don't think most hugs in the office are the same as high-fives on the basketball court," he adds.

Two others usually received with open arms are the "good-to-have-you-back" and "until-next-time" hugs, rated the most common hug behaviors in work environments in the University of Colorado study. "When people are doing greetings and departures, they can sneak in a lot more hugs," says Jones, "especially affectionate departures, because the person will be gone tomorrow so it has nowhere to go from there."

The context in these cases is clear and mostly unquestionable, says Elsea. But even an "appropriate" hug can carry a hidden message, as she realized in a recent work place embrace.

"He grinned and sort of enveloped me," she says of a participant in a World Bank seminar she leads. She hadn't seen him for six weeks. "The room was empty. Even though the message was obvious, I don't think he would've done it if the others had been there."

Elsea, who adds that the hugger was American, emphasizes culturally related hug behavior as another general exception to the work-place hands-off rule. "Washington is such a cross-cultural city. To kiss or hug a stranger in some cultures is considered standard operating procedure. And you see that here.

"It's also a transient town with transitory kinds of lives. Many people are here temporarily having left family and friends. That may add to a reaching out, to increase the touchy and huggy. And, in many respects, this is still a southern city, and interacting with others and touching is part of the culture of the South."

But the deciding factor in determining propriety of at-work hugs is the "code" of specific work environments, all the more complex today because of the changing nature of the work place.

"You have to accommodate the mores of the situation you're in," says Betty Lehan Harragan, author of Games Mother Never Taught You and Knowing the Score.

In a recent Working Woman magazine article on business etiquette in the '80s, Harragan reported a growing tendency for businesswomen to greet each other with hugs and cheek-kissing. While it's more prevalent in flamboyant industries, such as entertainment, there's reason, she says, for questioning its propriety in most work surroundings.

"Is it appropriate for the situation?" asks Harragan, 58, who lives in New York City. "Working is a special situation. You see kiss-and-hug greetings on the Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin shows all the time. That's the theatrical situation. It doesn't mean they're friends and it doesn't mean they love each other. I think it's pretty phony. But it's accepted and expected in that situation."

Hugging is probably least acceptable in jobs where business protocol is the norm, where formality wins over informality. Employes expected to address each other with Mr. or Ms., for example, probably won't see as many "9-to-5" hugs.

Even acceptable hugs at work aren't free of formalities. Nancy Henley, professor of psychology at UCLA, points out in her book Body Politics that touch interactions like hugging differ between pairs of persons of different status.

"Picture who would be more likely to touch the other," she writes. "Teacher/student; master/servant; police officer/accused person; doctor/patient; minister/parishioner; adviser/advisee; foreman/worker; businessman/secretary."

Typically, persons of superior status initiate touching, and most work environments provide ready-made hierarchies. "It's often considered an affront, an insubordination, for a person of lower status to touch one of higher status," says Henley, 50. "Only on special occasions can someone of lower status hug someone of higher status safely."

Touch-status factors go beyond job hierarchy. Children are touched more than adults and employes are touched more than employers, says Henley. She points out that, contrary to popular belief, the "untouchables" in the Hindu religion aren't those who shouldn't be touched, but those prohibited from touching others of higher status.

"Women are touched more than men," she adds, indicating a touchy issue that has evolved as the demographics of today's work place continue to change, as more women gain job equity with men. That also tends to confuse the messages of the at-work hug.

"People are supposed to be task-oriented at work and not treat it as a place of affection or emotion," says Henley. "Yet, at the same time, the people they work with every day may be their close friends. Hugging between friends is acceptable."

Harragan, however, points to that as a danger: "It gives a nonserious, nonprofessional feeling that throws the job too much into the social category," particularly for women who want to be taken seriously in a male-dominated work place.

Most behavioral experts agree.

In Think Like a Man, Act Like a Lady, Work Like a Dog, Newton's practical guide for women trying to get ahead in their business careers, a subhead reads: "ZOO." The entry reads: "What your office will become if you hug and blow kisses to male workers."

The bottom line on hugging at work, says Newton, is that "giving people messages that are garbled or can easily be distorted isn't professional for either sex. If you're a professional and want to advance, you buy into the prevailing ethic. That suggests you don't hug and touch coworkers.

"Perhaps those standards are out of date. Nevertheless, they're still here."