manners . . . watch your p's and q's . . . proper etiquette . . . Who
came up with what's proper and what is not? Should we still pay attention
to such "rules" or are they outdated in today's society?
Manners are basically ways to show kindness and respect towards others and yourself. Some are more obvious than others and many seem a bit over the top for everyday life. But having good manners is about making other people feel comfortable and at ease in your presence. They should recognize that you are kind, not that you are following societal rules.
Where to Learn Manners
We should all learn good manners at home when growing up, right? Not necessarily. Hopefully parents are still modeling basic kind behavior, but there are many instances of etiquette that may not present themselves, depending on the activities of the family. While parents may themselves properly respond to wedding invitations and send notes of condolence, such acts may not be taught to the children at the time.
If you're the type who would rather be informed than ignorant when it comes to social behavior and interactions, a book about etiquette is for you. Then you can choose which "rules" you want to observe regarding dinner parties, weddings, and so on. Etiquette books abound at used bookstores, many dating to the 1940s. Many of these books are full of material applicable today as well as a few laughs. Modern versions are certainly available at your local bookstore or online.
Examples of Etiquette
In most any etiquette book, you will find a wealth of information such as: restaurant manners - how to order, what those French terms mean, how to tip; qualities of a gracious host or hostess - invitations, greeting guests, being tactful; engagement and wedding etiquette - announcing the engagement, meeting the relatives, bridal showers, breaking an engagement, etc. And, of course, you'll find instructions as to "which fork to use" at a formal dinner.
One area of etiquette in particular is most helpful - "what to say" in correspondence. Illnesses, deaths, and other misfortunes are often difficult to address. Often we don't say anything or don't send the card because we're not sure exactly what to say. An example from "The Standard Book of Etiquette" by Lillian Eichler Watson, 1948:
On the Death of a Parent:
I was grieved and shocked to hear of your great loss. I know how you adored your mother, and I only wish there were something I could do or say to comfort you in your sorrow.
Walter and I send heartfelt sympathy to you and to your family. We hope you will call on us if there is anything we can do to help.
Recommended reading: "Star Spangled Manners: In Which Miss Manners Defends American Etiquette"; "Emily Post's Etiquette (16th Edition)"