A timely column

Picture this: you’ve prepared meticulously for your research presentation at the University of Chile, where you’re doing a research project for half a year. At the scheduled start time, you’re still alone in the room, nervously eyeing the clock. Five minutes later, people begin to trickle in. The meeting, meant to last an hour, stretches blissfully into an hour and a half or two (who keeps time?!). Conversations flow seamlessly into coffee, and coffee into lunch. 

Contrast this with the Dutch academic scene: as the meeting comes to an end, everybody is ready to leave.

Having recovered from my jet lag after arriving in Chile, I now realize there is another transition to make: from the academic time zone of the Netherlands to the local one. 

In the Netherlands, the rise of industrialization brought with it a culture of punctuality. Factories ran on strict schedules, and this discipline permeated all aspects of life, including academia. The Calvinist influence further reinforced this ethos, emphasizing discipline, order, and respect for time. 

Consequently, in Dutch academic culture, time is perceived as a linear and finite resource. Meetings are meticulously planned with a strict adherence to schedules. This precision ensures efficiency, clarity, and a predictable structure that supports high productivity levels. 

The Chilean model fosters a more relaxed atmosphere, encouraging a more holistic approach to academic discussions

Chile’s more relaxed approach to time can be traced back to its agricultural roots. In agrarian societies, time is more fluid, dictated by the rhythms of nature rather than the tick of a clock. Communal living and a focus on relationships also play crucial roles. Social gatherings are an integral part of life, and the emphasis is on the quality of interaction rather than the schedule. 

This cultural norm extends to the academic realm, where meetings often start late and continue as long as the conversation remains engaging. The Chilean model fosters a more relaxed atmosphere, encouraging deeper interpersonal connections and a more holistic approach to academic discussions. 

These cultural differences profoundly influence academic priorities and collaborations. In the Dutch system, the emphasis on punctuality and efficiency translates to a focus on achieving tangible outcomes. Research projects are tightly managed, with clear timelines and deliverables. This approach can, however, lead to a transactional view of academic relationships, where the focus is on output rather than process.

In contrast, the Chilean academic system places a higher value on the process of collaboration. Meetings and discussions are seen as opportunities for meaningful engagement and the exchange of ideas. This emphasis on relational time encourages building connections and fosters creativity.  

Whether it’s the segmented punctuality of the Dutch or the fluid continuity of the Chileans, time really does tell. For international academics, navigating these cultural differences means embracing different relationships to time. Yet, between the Dutch stopwatch and the Chilean sundial, academics still get their research done and, occasionally, even enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee. So, I’m letting the academic clock tick (or not) as it will… and taking my time. 


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