Independent channels are established for two-way (full-duplex) communications. The RS232 signals are represented by voltage levels with respect to a system common (power / logic ground). The "idle" state (MARK) has the signal level negative with respect to common, and the "active" state (SPACE) has the signal level positive with respect to common. RS232 has numerous handshaking lines (primarily used with modems), and also specifies a communications protocol.
The RS-232 interface presupposes a common ground between the DTE and DCE. This is a reasonable assumption when a short cable connects the DTE to the DCE, but with longer lines and connections between devices that may be on different electrical busses with different grounds, this may not be true.
RS232 data is bi-polar.... +3 TO +12 volts indicates an "ON or 0-state (SPACE) condition" while A -3 to -12 volts indicates an "OFF" 1-state (MARK) condition.... Modern computer equipment ignores the negative level and accepts a zero voltage level as the "OFF" state. In fact, the "ON" state may be achieved with lesser positive potential. This means circuits powered by 5 VDC are capable of driving RS232 circuits directly, however, the overall range that the RS232 signal may be transmitted/received may be dramatically reduced.
The output signal level usually swings between +12V and -12V. The "dead area" between +3v and -3v is designed to absorb line noise. In the various RS-232-like definitions this dead area may vary.