At any given instant in time, people in this world can be classified into two categories. The talkers and the listeners. Listeners of course can be sub-categorized into listeners who actually listen and listeners who pretend to listen while dreaming about more pleasant things.
Talking is a gift. Especially making small-talk. People who can walk upto perfect strangers and talk like long-lost friends are indeed gifted. But then they are very few of them. Most people are bad at small-talk, including yours truly. But I am glad there are some people in this world whose ability to do small talk makes me look like God.
A few months ago, at a dinner that I had to attend, I was stuck between 2 people, whose idea of small talk was listing all the countries they had visited. In fact both of them were trying to one-up each other and impress their largely uninterested audience. Person A would say, "when I went to Vienna, it was like this...." and Person B would interrupt and say, "Oh, when I went to Paris, it was not like that that all...". And it continued like that the entire time we were having dinner. Initially I had shown some polite interest towards them which slowly morphed into complete disinterest. Thankfully the food was good and I kept my mouth stuffed with chicken and naan so that any verbal acknowledgements from me were ruled out. Anyway my lack of participation in the conversation was no hindrance to either of them at all. At one point of time, I was shocked when suddenly out of the blue, with absolutely no relation to the current topic at all, person A looked at me and said "You know, I am a graduate from MIT." I could see that he was bothered when I seemed largely unimpressed and continued with my chicken and naan strategy. Later that evening, after the dinner, I told my friend MS about this. Both of us were of the opinion that when you are in a situation where you have to make small-talk, you are not gaining anything by speaking about yourself. You already know who you are. So just by saying things about yourself, you are gaining absolutely no new insights. But on the other hand, if you ask questions and listen to the answers, you might gain something new and useful.
This has been specifically my strategy of small-talk. Asking questions. But I must confess that I have chosen this strategy purely because of its ease and the minimal effort that it needs. Coming up with questions is so much easier than holding a discourse on a topic. But many a time, I have been guilty of asking a question and not paying attention to the answer and then asking the same question to the same person again. My wife has pointed this out to me a couple of times, when I have repeated my questions with strangers. But repeating questions is at least not as embarassing as the time, when I introduced myself to a person, who I was actually introduced to just 5 minutes before that by my friend. All the witty things that I could have said to make light of the situation sadly came to me the next day when I was at work.
But nothing can be more embarassing than the time I talked to a stranger and I did not even know that I was talking to him. Yes, that sounds strange, but it won't when I tell you that I was talking in my sleep. Before you wonder why I am sleeping with a stranger, let alone talk to him in my sleep, this happened in a flight - when I was flying from Tanzania back home to the US. I fell asleep as soon as the flight took off and I had a dream that I was camping in a tent in the jungles. Having spent the majority of my time in Tanzania doing precisely that, the dream was not entirely unjustified. I could hear the whirring noise of the engine because my seat was right above it. For the life of me, I could not figure out what animal in a jungle was capable of making this constant whirring noise outside my tent. So I expressed my doubts aloud, "Do you hear that sound? What animal is that?". Nobody answered me, so I repeated my questions again, slightly apprehensive that my talking might provoke the strange animal outside my tent. And that is when I woke up, and I found myself staring at the man across the aisle who had leant forward with a quizzical expression on his face. A proper British chap that he was, he said 'Pardon'. I just looked at him, shook my head, closed my eyes and never looked in his direction again. Thankfully there was no one else to witness this (I hope) since the flight was fairly empty and there was no one sitting next to me or him. Well, if nothing else, at least I can now proudly say that I can make small-talk even in my sleep!