Cultural misunderstanding is not always the result of words gone astray, of something lost in translation. It may arise from the simple act of looking a new acquaintance in the eye or slapping him on the back, both friendly gestures in this country but insulting in some other cultures.

Howard County, home of an increasingly diverse population and work force, is attempting in an ambitious series of training sessions to convey that message to its own employees. It is the kind of lesson quickly being taught in the Middle East, where U.S. troops are trying not to intrude overtly on folkways.

In Howard, a largely white county where more Asians, Hispanics and blacks are now living and working, "We view this as an opportunity to take a step forward, before we have to look behind and say this is something we should have done," said county administrative assistant Maggie Brown.

Looking the other person in the eye is "just one of thousands of examples out there" of how American customs may differ from those of cultures in Asia or Latin America, where such behavior can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect, she said.

"The point is, we want to be aware that everyone in this world does not hold eye contact, and there's nothing wrong with it," she said. "Once you've put that in your own mind, you're more considerate of the fact and don't make quick judgments because the other person isn't making eye contact."

The training, conducted in groups of two dozen at a time, began last month and is expected to cost the county $30,000 for the first six months. The county police force began sensitivity training for its officers two years ago.

But the county is one of the first in the region to make cross-cultural awareness sessions mandatory for all its 1,600 workers, from County Executive Elizabeth Bobo and Administrator Buddy W. Roogow on down.

Some employees who consider themselves veterans of diversity say there have been surprises in the four-hour sessions, conducted by consultant Rita Andrews, a former Bell Atlantic trainer.

"The level of questions showed that some people weren't in tune . . . that, for instance, nicknames can be racist," said Kenneth Watts, a program supervisor with the county corrections department. "People aren't always aware of what they are doing."

It was news to some participants that the directive "you people" can be a pejorative to blacks, Andrews said. "It never dawned on me that it can be considered a very crude remark," said a fire services lieutenant. "Several older black women in the class spoke up and said that it goes back to slavery days" and evoked memories of being ordered to the back of the bus, he said. "It's one of those little tidbits of life that I'm glad I now know."

Elizabeth Salett, president of the organization working with Howard employees, International Counseling Center of Washington, said interest in cross-cultural training is growing. The center has contracted with Montgomery County and the District of Columbia's Office of Latino Affairs, among others, she said.

"I think we're seeing an increasing need for greater sensitivity to the emerging, diverging groups in Howard County," said Martin Siegel, rabbi to the Columbia Jewish Congregation and head of a county group called Clergy for Social Justice.

Howard has been the scene of a "marked increase in racial, religious and ethnic incidents," said Marshall Spurlock, chairman of the county Human Rights Commission. "An understanding of different cultures would play a major role in decreasing the incidents."

Cross-cultural training should go well beyond the county government, Spurlock said. "I think private industry should have it . . . because it's an avenue of understanding . . . . Without a knowledge of what things mean in different cultures, you're acting blindly."