Taking Control: The power in a tuna sandwich

Stealth, denial, determination. These are the tools of a true control freak. Most people know at least one. In fact most people are related to at least one. I am no exception and, as Exhibit A, I would like to present the battle of the sandwiches.

This occurred some years ago on what was supposed to be a holiday. So there we were: the sun was shining, the surf was pounding, the world was our oyster. What where we discussing? Sandwich fillings, of course, and all because we were going on a picnic the next day and one of us was a control freak.

"Do you really want cheese?" she said in that dangerously nonchalant tone they use. I shrugged and said that yes, I did. "Do you want cheese?" she asked someone else. He shrugged and said yes he did. "Look, it seems clear to me that people really don't want cheese," she said. "I think I'll just go to the grocery store and get some tuna. What do you think?" We said that we thought cheese would be OK, and with that she was off to the store to buy tuna. She then got up at 6am to make the damn things.

Now most people think of control freaks as high-powered business types who jet around trying to take over the world. If only. Most of the ones I run into are just trying to control the details of life and usually that life is not their own. This is why you get people plotting the exact route to that out-of-town Tesco for you (and then insisting on travelling along just to make sure you follow their directions). They know exactly which brand of disposable nappy to buy (and check up on you to make sure you do). The truth about caring about the small things in life is that it offers endless possibilities for control.

Then there are those who control by omission. If this sounds a bit sinister, that is because it is. A friend relates the bizarre tale of the year that her mother did not like her Christmas presents. Instead of telling anyone this she just quit speaking. Not for a day, or a week even, but for six months. Then one day she spoke and all was back to what passes for normal.

You may think this extreme and you may be right but you'd be wrong not to see that the idea of control by absence is widespread. Take for instance those people who have a late gene. This means that they are always at least 15 minutes late to every meeting and, by virtue of not being there, control the whole thing.

Then there are those who control by making you feel invisible. Shop assistants are good at this. As are some managers. Take the guy who schedules a meeting but, when you arrive, is on the phone. "Urgent," he mouths as he waves you in. He then proceeds to put his feet on the desk and talk to Leo in Southampton about hardly anything that you can ascertain for 10 minutes. Finally he puts the phone down. "Sorry about that," he says, beaming. I think not.

"So how do you control these people?" asks a friend. The answer, I'm afraid, is that I haven't a clue. However, as a start, I have decided that from now on I shall control my own sandwich fillings. Scary, but true.

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