06/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"You're Too Kind." "I Know, but I'm Trying to Stop It."

A decade or so ago, several (hundred) jokes made the rounds having to do with thin books. You know: The Italian Cuisine Diet Book, The Smart-Blonde Gag Collection. Mock titles of that sort, often based -- as so many mildly amusing jokes are -- on stereotypes. That spate of chuckle-getters came to mind a few days ago when a very thin book called On Kindness showed up in my mailbox. "Yup," I thought to myself, "these days it makes sense that something of such meager size is all anyone might scrape together about on the subject of kindness."

Nevertheless, I read what is essentially a long-ish essay (114 6"x4" pages) by the revered psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the respected historian Barbara Taylor. The authors get admirably serious about the history of kindness as defined by various cultures over the millennium, bringing their considerations right up to Sigmund Freud and the post-Freudian present. Their attitude on "caring, sharing" is sympathetic. They're all for kindness and lean toward it being genuinely altruistic, at least in sufficient part, despite arguments from other quarters that it's grounded strictly in selfishness -- even in sexual desire.

Actually though, my interest in the book stemmed from a personal take on kindness revolving around my own work. Because I'm a reviewer -- a critic writing about theater, music, books, movies, art, dance, opera -- I often come into contact with people who I've reviewed. I've often written about them favorably and because of that, they're inclined to thank me for my comments. Almost invariably, they say the same sort of thing to me, something along the lines of "Thank you for being so kind."

My response invariably is, "I'm never kind, but I'm always fair."

What I don't say, although it may come through in my intentionally smiling manner, is that their telling me I've been kind annoys me somewhat. It gets my possibly too easily-gettable goat for any number of reasons. Superficially, I'm bothered because their thanking me for being kind implies that the enthusiasm I evidenced wasn't genuine but was my forgiving a performance we both knew had been flawed. The suggestion is that I was being kind about something that was not much more than so-so.

Underneath that stance lurks something more questionable, I suspect. At least, that's what I sense. I think what people are saying with "Thanks for being kind" is often a tip-off to false modestly. What they're really saying is something like this: "We both know how good I am, but I'm not going to admit I think so (because that would be boastful) and the last thing I want to be caught at is bragging. So I'll pretend I know I'm not that good, and you'll think more of me for the nicely modulated demurral."

Okay, I will admit there are times when I may be kind, but it's only when I think something is much worse than I let on. I'm fully aware I can get my point across without being unpleasantly harsh or snide. Yes, perhaps my shying away from something that may seem cruel is a form of kindness. Perhaps I am stretching the truth when I say, "I'm never kind, but I'm always fair." But that occasional hint of kindness -- call it mercy -- is saved for the lacking, not the accomplished. I still maintain that any praise I've dispensed has been based on a conviction about what's been put before me.

My conviction goes farther. As a reviewer, I'm convinced that criticism is one of those times when kindness is not called for. Criticism is founded on holding up -- and also holding to -- standards. Kindness in a critic implies he or she is compromising those standards. And once standards have been compromised, they cease to having any meaning. And once they cease to have any meaning, a long skid has occurred on the slippery slope to mediocrity, and worse.

I could go so far as to say that when a performer, writer, director, producer or whoever thanks a critic for being kind, he or she is really insulting the critic. The underlying message is that gratitude -- whether sincere or feigned -- is being expressed for a loosened adherence to standards.

I could go so far as to say that but I won't, because I suspect it would only come out sounding unkind and unfair. And who wants that? What I will say is that anyone in the mood to thank a reviewer might want to keep it to something like, "I read what you said about me in your review. Thank you. I appreciate it." The message there is that you've assumed the critic meant what was said, that a fair assessment was made and distributed.

No one can balk at gratitude for a job well done.