Compliance or Exile?

“That is, to be ourselves causes us to be exiled by many others, and yet to comply with what others want causes us to be exiled from ourselves.” 
― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves

In 2004, an employee of a MacDonald’s in the US state of Kentucky was detained, stripped and sexually assaulted by her manager, and the manager’s fiancé.  Why? – because an unknown male called the store, said he was a police officer and this was a necessary procedure given the employee had been accused of theft by a customer.  All instructions were given over the phone, with enough authority and intimidation, to score compliance in the manager who in turn effectuated compliance in the employee.

Events at my own place of employment this week led me to think on the phenomenon of compliance.  Of course, the MacDonald’s event in 2004 is an extreme example and I must say first and foremost that nothing led me to take any clothes off at work – this isn’t about to turn into a vomit-worthy middle-aged porn story.  But the dynamics of compliance are always the same and it was a shock for me to learn that my hard-nosed, practical little self could silence all my inner ‘No’s!’ in the face of an authority figure.

There is a difference between compliance and coercion.  Coercion implies consent is not given but that an individual takes part in the act due to an imminent threat.  Compliance is much subtler – consent is given, against better judgment, for fear of a negative outcome should you refuse the direction.  Coercion is an instrument of force, compliance is an instrument of obedience.  Both screw with our consent compass.

We all want to be accepted by other people.  Even the deepest chasms of anti-social behaviour contain the indicators of someone misguidedly coping with rejection.  And there are times when compliance is the lesser of two evils in the workplace – I am a great believer in the ‘pick your battles’ mantra because, well, I’m middle-aged and my battling for the sake of battling days are well and truly over.  But I think there is a certain warning system, quieted by years of social conditioning, that shouldn’t be ignored.  That little prick of hesitation that sticks you when you are told to do something you know you shouldn’t do.  No matter how insignificant the request.

I think women are particularly vulnerable to the siren song of compliance.  We want to ‘get-along’, we don’t want to cause a problem, we don’t want to be viewed as a princess or a trouble-maker.  Our strength is too often dismissed as insubordination and our noncompliance too often disciplined as antipathy.  So, we keep our mouths shut and carry on.  Exile indeed.

If we teach children to know their boundaries in all situations we’re likely to have more grown-ups willing and capable of reading their hesitation and negotiating better outcomes.  In business, in relationships, in life.  Etiquette be damned.

I thought I was well over this lesson.  This week I needed a refresher.

Compliance: noun [U] /kəmˈplaɪ.əns/:

formal the act of obeying an order, rule, or request:

​mainly disapproving the state of being too willing to do what other people want you to do:

  • Cambridge Dictionary