Word of the Week: Compliance

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Compliance is a word frequently found in history, sociology, government, and business texts. It refers to the act of giving in or yielding to some other person or group's wishes, requests, or commands. Compliance can be used informally (sentences 1 and 4) to describe interpersonal relationships, in which one person gives into another. But it can also be used more formally in situations where compliance involves adhering to, or following, established laws or rules (see sentence 2). It is also common in medical texts where it's used to indicate how well a patient does or does not follow a particular course of treatment (sentence 3).

  1. Expecting immediate compliance on the part of his normally obedient daughter, the father was shocked when she looked at him with contempt and refused to turn off her cell phone.
  2. The contractor's lack of compliance with the building regulations earned her a hefty fine.
  3. The instructor gave the medical students five tips for ensuring patient compliance.
  4. The teenager's speedy compliance with his mother's request for help with the dishes suggested he wanted the car after dinner.

Related forms: compliant, comply


Memory Pegs. To remember the word compliance, link it to the notorious Milgram experiment. This was a study carried out by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. Milgram wanted to see if, when told to do so by a person in authority, people would comply and inflict pain on others.

Unfortunately, many of Milgram's subjects showed a high degree of compliance when a man in a white coat and appearing to be a doctor told them to administer painful electric shocks to other members of the study. Even though the subjects appeared to be screaming in pain—They were faking it—65% of Milgram's subjects were compliant. They delivered what they thought was a highly painful electric shock to their fellow human beings. Based on his study, Milgram decided that compliance to authority was a very common trait.* Remember the Milgram experiment, and it's doubtful that you will forget the meaning of compliance.

*Later studies showed that the number of people willing to inflict pain on others dropped dramatically when they were supported in their objections by other participants.


Specialized Use in Business. Regulatory compliance refers to a company's or individual's following of, or adherence to, all the legislation and standards that apply to their particular field or market. Any factory owner, for instance, is going to aim for regulatory compliance with all the guidelines set forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA.)


Comprehension Checks

1. Given what you know about the word compliance, which of these sentences uses it correctly?

The drifter showed his compliance with the owner's demand that she move on by hurling a rock into the store window.
His displays of compliance with his achievements always irritated her.
The prisoner knew that immediate compliance was the only way to avoid solitary confinement.

2. Title IX (9) legislation was signed into law by President Richard Nixon as part of the Educational Amendments of 1972. The legislation barred gender discrimination in the schools. As a result of Title IX, the number of sports programs for girls increased. Some even believe that Title IX forever leveled the playing field—pardon the pun—between male and female sports programs, making funding for both about equal. Does the following quotation from actress and athlete Geena Davis suggest that she is one of those people?

"I have a Web site that parents and girls can use to learn about Title IX and take action if they find their school is not in compliance. Thirty years after Title IX passed, 80 percent of schools are not in compliance."

3. When a friend asks you to go to a movie you already told him you were really anxious to see, are you showing compliance by accompanying him?

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Last update of this page: March 22, 2014