Story master Shawn Callahan was kind enough to comment on my first post and suggest an additional metaphor for receptions.  Whereas I had riffed on the concept of a border crossing, Shawn wisely emphasised the idea of a shoreline.  And it’s a metaphor I like.  For receptions are places of ebb and flow, subject to a diurnal low and high tide as employees and visitors arrive and depart.   And just as the tides leave a detritus of seaweed, driftwood and, in my native Norfolk, rucksacks of carefully wrapped  cocaine, so the human flow leaves its own traces: a temporary imprint on a leather seat; a corporate magazine left open at a nonchalantly scanned page; a half drunk cup of earl grey.

Similarly, as deserted shorelines exude a certain melancholy, so receptions, in those late evenings or weekends, possess a lonely, even uncanny, mood.  The lighting subdued, the aggregate floors and walls prone to echoes, the security guard, a lonely sentinel peering through the plate glass windows to the wild seas beyond.

These shorelines – liminal, deserted – are places for story.  Each attracts the other.  M.R James, probably our greater writer of the uncanny, knew it well.  In Oh, Whistle, and I’ll come to You, My Lad, the antiquarian Professor Parker dreams of a terrified, exhausted man pursued by a ‘figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined’ along a ‘stretch of shore – shingle edged by sand, and intersected at short intervals with black groynes running down to the water’.   As a result of his horrifying experience at the climax of the story, Parker is arguably a changed man – his ‘views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be’.  Although, such enlightenment comes at a price: ‘the spectacle of a scarecrow in a field on a winter afternoon has cost him more than one sleepless night’.

As the story shows, the liminal can be a place of discomfort, of knowledge gained and innocence lost: a place of ambiguous transformation.  So, next time you find yourself in a deserted reception, not only may the artefacts around you carry a greater potency (as there is less to distract you from the stories they carry), but you may find it prudent not to look behind you. Those footsteps you hear are getting closer, and closer still…


I spend many hours in corporate receptions.  But it is never time wasted.  These are the liminal shorelines between the world outside and the inner workings of the organisational machine.  A patrolled borderland; a crossing that requires proof of identity and the scrutiny of papers.  Only when legitimacy has been established can the journey continue.  At a personal level, these are places of transition.  Moments before I may have been thinking about other things – a tv programme, a weekend run – but when I turn through the revolving doors, my identity elides.  I focus on the coming meeting and the conversations that may take place.  But even this work persona is compromised.  Here, I am a stranger; an outsider – the supplicant at the gate craving entry.  My security card is, in this country, worthless tender.

So perhaps this unease, this uncertainty make me more receptive to what I see.  And what I – or anyone can see – if they take care to look carefully enough, is a window – opaque and perhaps grimy – but a window none the less into the organisational soul.  Often there is marble, light, atria – hard, composite surfaces blending with soft leather furnishings.  They suggest a promise of what the organisation is and how it would like to be seen.  Every item – from the artful vase of flowers by the receptionist to the lithographs on the wall – projects a story.  Sometimes the story is literal.  Displays that hint – or sometimes shout – at the organisation’s history: its founding myth, its beginning, middle but, of course, never its end.  There may be corporate books or magazines on  the hardwood tables.  These in turn may include stories that convey the values, the ethos, the everyday culture: a day in the life of our logistics manager in Redditch; a client’s tale of exemplary service.  Stories that sustain and support identity and brand.

Of course, you must also look for what is not there.  What might you expect that is not on public view?  The organisation’s madwoman in the attic – the story that is suppressed and fettered.

Finally, look at the dramas that play before you as you flick through the corporate magazine, maybe a small coffee to hand, all the time glancing at your watch as you await the emissary who will convey you across the border.  How do these embody or subvert the knowledge and intelligence you have gained through the more explicit stories around you? As employees pass through, do they smile, talk, joke – acting out the value of ‘collegiate’ so proudly displayed by the lifts?  Is the strident value of ‘respectful’ demonstrated by a friendly ‘hello’ to the security staff and receptionist; or is there a purposeful aversion of eyes that tell a different tale, a more truthful tale?

And each time you wait, the stories build.  A palimpsest of impressions, insights and intuitions that help you navigate the uncertainty and unease of your fragile, visitor’s status.