It was the first time they met, but they got down to it right away.

Terrenn Robinson, a black employe of Montgomery County's Division of Revenue, asked Maj. Fred W. Chaney, a white police officer, "why most white people assume that all blacks are illiterate, come from poor environments and are stupid."

Chaney said he thought it was due to stereotypes and upbringing. "I've got to be honest with you, I've done the same thing . . . . It's not easy to answer."

And so it went yesterday at Montgomery County's Sensitivity Awareness Symposium on Sensitivity Awareness Day, a time officially set aside to help county residents overcome racial, ethnic and religious prejudices.

As of Nov. 30, there were 121 incidents of racially and religiously motivated crimes reported this year, down from 129 during the same period last year, according to the county Human Relations Commission. There has been one cross burning this year, down from six in 1982 and two in 1983.

"I don't care if the number of swastikas and cross burnings are zero," Howard University professor Orlando Taylor, speaker at the county meeting, told 100 county employes in the audience. "I don't want to think we have no conflict. I want to start on the other end -- the subtle things."

Taylor described the ways different cultural groups react to situations and said that what is often acceptable behavior for one group can be offensive to another. As an example, he cited different ways citizen groups bring grievances to the county government.

In "the mainstream culture," he said, one must be "cool, controlled, not loud, unemotional." Minority groups, he said, may "view this as dishonest discussion . . . they have to show passion . . . but it doesn't mean I'm dangerous and about to fight you, but that I want to show you the intensity of my feelings."

Sensitivity Awareness Day was observed only in schools last year. This year, county employes were given two hours of administrative leave to attend one of three sessions where speakers tried to help participants be more aware of the differences that exist between racial and cultural groups. A county-sponsored session was also held for 50 private businesses, and schoolchildren in every classroom spent at least 30 minutes discussing prejudice.