White Rhodesian society in recent months has developed a keen sense of humor symbolized by the ironic name of a best-selling luggage store - The Big Suitcase.

But if many old time white settlers are willing to settle for that kind of epitaph, there's a new breed of whites who disagrees.

White newcomers at a time of growing white exodus, they range from soldiers of the counterrevolution sworn to "stop communism" to apparent confidence men. Others are attracted to an idealized version of wide open spaces undeterred by the potential of violent change in a country approaching black majority rule.

Outnumbered 3 to 1 by those leaving, the newcomers appear unconcerned by the exodus as if buoyed up by some special knowledge of their own destiny.

Aside from that belief - which might be called naivete in other circumstances - they seemingly have little in common except their white skins.

Interviews with the newcomers uncovered men who have lived through the chaos as Congolese independence in 1960 and the violence in Northern Ireland.

It was as if having survived those upheavals they were, in one man's words, "inoculated" against the fears so widely held by old-time white residents about the threat of coming change in Rhodesia.

"After Belfast," said William Wright, 24 "almost anything seems fairly decent."

A fortyist Frenchman who wanted to be known only as Claude said: "After you're survived the Congo it's going to be easier for you to accept the inevitable changes than for longer-term white Rhodesians who find it hard to make concessions."

Volence, the end of 90 years of unchallenged white rule, confusion, - the nightmare images - leave Claude unmoved.

"I told my wife that things may get bad for six or eight months and she'll nave to stay with friends in South Africa," he said. "But anyblack regime will need whites and I'm less compromised than the old-timers."

Unlike most of the newly arrived - even those who start off by ritually insisting they're not interested in politics - Claude does not worship at the altar of professional anticommunism.

"I'm not afraid of the Communists," he said. "Like most Frenchmen I think of myself as a man of the left."

Except for those who came to fight as volunteers in the Rhodesian army, the war seems distant to the newcomers.

For 34-year-old English-born finacial journalist Richard Pittman, "When the guerrillas bayonet little kiddies I'm opposed to that form of activity and have no objective to fighting against it."

It's not a decision he will have to make immediately.

One of the advantages of the Rhodesian immigration policy is a two-year draft exemption (along with reimbursed airline tickets and much reduced taxes).

Wright, an Irish Protestant, said "Here at least there is some will on the government's part to fight terrorism. In Northern Ireland the British simply talked of an acceptable level of violence."

If newcomers have misgivings about their decision to come here they tend to keep them to themselves. Some complain of the lack of Scotch whiskey - a result of ever-tightening foreign exchange controls. Others, like Claude, joke about turning Rhodesia's failings to their own uses. "The worst thing here," he said, "is the way women dress - straight out of the 50s - and I'm trying to talk my wife into opening a dressmaking shop."

Almost without exception the immigrants found jobs within a week or 10 days of arrival. They accepted less money than they would have made in their home countries, and seemed unbothered by the fact that the Rhodesian dollar is unusable outside the country.

In back of most of the newcomers' thinking was a desire to leave former careers. Most regarded their first jobs here as temporary.

"I used to be in tourism," said Claude, who now works as an accountant. "Indeed that is how I came to know Rhodesia years ago and it's what I would like to do in the future after things quiet down."

Pittman is using his current job as a finanical journalist to meet politicians and industrialists in hopes of branching out into business for himself.

"Mining, tourism, industry," he said, "all these branches offer scope for individual achievement. If you want to do something you can do it here. The future's so bright.

How the black majority fits into the newcomers' scheme of things remains hazy. They expressed vague disapproval of white paternalism but little appreciation of the very real dangers of continued fighting between black majority government and foreign-based guerrillas.

It was as if they were purposely blocking out such depressing thoughts now they had made the decision to come to Rhodesia. They appeared unmoved by the worries of other white Rhodesians who are prepared to leave if things turn much worse."

It would take a hell of a lot to make me leave," Pittman said. Asked why he had chosen Rhodesia in preference to Canada, the United States, Australia of New Zealand, he said, "nice safe options . . . but life is not all about being safe and secure and collecting pensions at 65."

It was Wright whose seemed to sum up the attraction of Rhodesia when he said, "Here it's like stepping back 20 years and that's not necessarily a bad thing."