DEAR ABBY: I know you meant well when you said, "Everybody could use a hug once in a while," but this advice can easily get out of hand.

I am an English-born clergyman who is presently living in California. I like my ministry and I love Americans. But one of the biggest culture shocks I've had to face in your country is the phenomenon of hugging.Total strangers will rush up and grab me as though I were a long-lost relative! Otherwise charming women will clasp me, impaling my cheeks on their flyaway diamond earrings. Even more alarming are the burly males who grip me in a bear hug from which there is no escape.

Abby, I am not a cold person, but such trespass bespeaks a false intimacy. As I had to put it to one clinging vine, "Madame, a handshake will do."

If you use this, I trust you will not disclose my name or location. Just sign me . . . FORGIVE THEM THAT TRESPASS

DEAR FORGIVE: While a handshake may do for you, some are not all that eager. One reader actually changed religions in order to escape the hand-shaking routine. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: After many years of reading your column, I finally came across a subject I feel so strongly about that I'm writing a letter to you. It was regarding the importance of washing one's hands after leaving the bathroom.

Hands are an incredible repository of germs. In fact, I recall reading that there are more germs on one's hands than on any other part of the body. That's why frequent washing is so important.

Which brings me to the main point of my letter: Many colds are spread by shaking hands. A person with a cold sneezes into his hands, shakes hands with you, and if you touch your nose, mouth or eyes before washing your hands - bingo, you've caught his cold!

Why does this archaic form of greeting still exist in most parts of the world? Actually, it began as a guard against treachery. (If you were holding someone's right hand, neither of you could go for your sword.)

I abhor shaking hands because I am susceptible to colds. I've even changed religions for this reason. I was a devout Catholic from birth, but became a Protestant when the "sign of peace" (shaking hands with the people around you) was introduced into the liturgy of the Mass. I couldn't stand to see people blowing their noses and sneezing into their hands for 40 minutes, then offering those same hands in greeting.

At work, I take a vacation day on Christmas Eve because all day long, co-workers stop by to shake your hand and say, "Merry Christmas." This, at the height of the flu season!

Abby, I am not an anti-social person, but we could all take a cue from the old-world Oriental people who bow in greeting while shaking their OWN hand! Sign me . . . SHAKY IN COLLEGE POINT, N.Y.

DEAR ABBY: The poem "Present Tense," written by 14-year-old Jason Lehman, was truly a gem. It reminded me of another poem I learned a long time ago. I never did know who wrote it, or if it had a name. It goes like this:

As a rule, man is a fool

When it's hot, he wants it cool

When it's cold, he wants it hot

Always wanting what is not!

- JERRY ARONBERG, CLAYTON, MO.

DEAR ABBY: A man signed "U.S. Male" said that he and his wife were having a disagreement about what it means when the red flag is "up" on the mailbox.

When I was a kid in Allegan, Mich. (RR1), we would put the red flag up to let the postman know that there was something in the box to be picked up.

After he picked it up, he'd put the red flag DOWN to let us know that he had picked it up. If, however, there was incoming mail only, the postman would put the flag UP to let us know that he had been there. - JEANNE BARNEY, HOLLYWOOD